Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Is Listening to a Book Cheating?

I have a casual relationship with audio books, especially now that I don't do as much daily driving as I used to do. I would never listen to an audio book from one of my favorite authors instead of savoring the printed version of their work and non-fiction audio books are a real struggle for me because I sometimes need to read the facts contained in non-fiction several times before I really comprehend them or they sink in for good. But, on the other hand, I find that thrillers, detective fiction and spy novels are perfect for the audio book format.

Despite the fact that I finish an audio book about every three weeks, I still feel somewhat guilty about listing them as part of what I've read for the year. In fact, although there are 14 audio books included in the 100 titles that I've read so far in 2007, in the back of my mind I still only count the 86 books of which I've actually turned the pages. And don't even start about the abomination of abridged audio books. I won't touch one of those unless there is nothing else to "read" within 10 miles of me and I'm on foot.

Susan Reimer, in her Baltimore Sun piece, talks about audio books and how they seem to be splitting some reading groups wide open.
I hesitate to admit this in polite company, but if I didn't listen to books, I wouldn't read at all.

I have a daily commute that is almost an hour in each direction and for many years have spent the rest of my time driving kids hither and yon.

During that time, I bet I "read" 500 books. Books that I would not have had the time nor the inclination to read if I had had consumption or two broken legs.
I thought it was just my book club, but apparently there is a real schism in book groups over the issue of whether you read the book or have it read to you.

And I thought abridged was cheating.

To settle this, I went to a higher authority: Carla Hayden, executive director of Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library.

"No, it is not cheating," she said. "In fact, I think we should appreciate the fact that we have so many ways now to enjoy literature."

Any such distinction, she said, makes reading seem like a chore and a book something to be suffered through.
"To hear an author read it can be magical," said Hayden. "You can hear the voice the authors were hearing in their heads when they were writing those words." Certainly, there are some cognitive differences between hearing a book and reading the words in it. We experience it differently depending on which part of our brain is lighting up. But, as Hayden suggests, the pictures in your head are probably going to be the same.
For fiction, I agree that the "pictures in my head" are very similar to the ones that I would experience from reading a book rather than from listening to it. But I find that my mind wanders from an audio book to more important things, like avoiding other drivers and not running over pedestrians, for much of the time. Even when listening to them around the house while doing chores, I only come to realize that I've tuned the reader out when I suddenly begin to listen to the words again. My comprehension level is much higher for the written word than it is for the spoken word that allows so many distractions to seep in. I suspect that some readers find just the opposite to be the case and that probably explains the split of opinion regarding whether or not listening to an audio book is somehow cheating yourself of the real reading experience.
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