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.


  1. I just recently finished listening to Stardust by Neil Gaiman. The movie has just recently come out and I wanted to read it before seeing it but knew I wouldn't have time so I checked out the audiobook. I have decided I'm not going to review it on my site but I think I was able to get almost as much out of it as I would had I read it. It is definitely a good way to pass the time in the car. But like you, I will listen to lighter stuff on audiobook. I'll save the heavier stuff for reading.

    As for book clubs, I think if the person got enough out of listening to it that they can discuss it then it's not cheating.

  2. As a pedestrian--I must thank you for paying attention and not hitting us! :) (You might--or might not--be surprised by how little people pay attention when driving sometimes!!). I am not really into audio books. I like the idea, but I never listen to them. I would be like you--I wouldn't choose anything I really, really liked to listen to, nothing too serious, and probably no NF. And the reader's voice has to be really good, or I can't get into the story. And I wouldn't be sure whether to count it as something I read either. I guess I'm pretty picky. Have you used those playaways?

  3. I have to say, I don't really listen to audio books. But I'm also a very visual person (yeah...I took one of those tests!) When I read, I have an image in my head about what is going on.

    I don't really think it's cheating, but it's certainly not my preferred means of reading a book!

    I'm just getting back from vacation and I'm trying to catch up on all my favorite blogs!

  4. I'm like you--my mind can wander when I'm listening to a book. You're right that it's more suited to fiction (especially of the fluffy variety) where you don't need to carefully assimilate new information.

  5. I recently left a job of three years which involved a loooong commute, and my local libraries' audio collections saved my sanity (even a confirmed NPR junkie can only take so much Morning Edition). It was great to be able to reclaim that time and get even more books into my life, and I still listen to them on long drives and when doing housework. And yes, I also use the audio format to read stuff I might not otherwise make priority - new authors, contemporary fiction (my usual taste is classical) and the fun stuff (mysteries, chic lit, Harry Potter, the McCall Smith oeuvre, etc.).

    With audio books the narrator is *everything*, and fortunately most of the publishers/producers have figured that out now. There's some fantastic talent working in this field, which is almost as much fun to appreciate as the books themselves.

  6. Sounds like another great use for audio books, Matt. I'm curious as to why you're not going to review it? Have you ever reviewed an audio book on your site?

  7. I haven't used one of the playaways yet, Danielle. They seem over-priced to me and unless my library carries them I probably won't be using them.

    I know what you mean about drivers - I've almost been run into or off the road several times as people drift into my lane while talking on cell phones...I hate those things being used in a car unless it's an emergency.

  8. Welcome back from your vacation, Stephanie. I noticed that you were back the other day, in fact.

    I must be more of a "visual person" myself because I really do have a harder time concentrating on an audio book or a lecture than I do on similar printed material.

  9. Audio books are near perfect for those long commutes, delpantano, without a doubt. I used them in the U.K. while commuting on trains and on the metro because it drowned out all the chatter of my fellow commuters, especially their obnoxious cell phone conversations.

    I agree about the reader making all the difference, too...but that is another reason that I wonder about audio books sometimes. Good readers tend to make even mediocre books pretty enjoyable and I wonder if the author deserves that kind of extra credit. Just wondering...

  10. They do work well for certain times and certain types of books, Sylvia, but I do doubt that they will ever be much more than a very secondary part of my "reading." I really do miss the act of turning pages and the heft of the book, etc. I've been reading a few e-books and that's my only complaint about them...I hate turning pages with a button.

  11. I don't think audio books are cheating but I know that they are not my preferred method either. I just don't get as much from them.

  12. I don't think audiobooks are "cheating" in the least. Think of the old days when a single book would have to do for a community. Then it would be selfish to run off and read it on your own. Or maybe it's a literacy test?

    I do tend to read rather than listen to audiobooks myself, just because I'm more visual (and I have a 10 minute commute) but it's not as if people can't skim reading books as well.

  13. Not my preference either, Amy, and it's essentially because, as you say, I don't get as much out of them as I do from a real book.

  14. What you say makes sense, Carrie K. But I still can't shake that nagging feeling that I'm taking the easy road by listening to a book rather than reading it.

    I wonder if it has to do with age. I'm old enough to remember a time before video cassettes, DVDs, books on tape, and books on CD. Do you think that maybe older people tend to feel more guilty about recorded books than younger people?

  15. I wouldn't say it's cheating, just that it's a different experience than reading the printed word. Just this morning I ran across someone on another blog saying they didn't review the audiobooks they 'read' because they felt their judgment of those books was impacted as much by the performance of the person reading it as by the book's words themselves. IMO, that isn't a reason not to review the audiobook, but it is a reason to review it AS an audiobook, meaning that you're evaluating the performance as much as the author's words.

  16. I love books on CD, and I don't consider it cheating since a 15-hour-long audiobook takes as much time to read (if not more) than a paper version. I listen to them on my road trips (I used to have a 20 hour drive to college that I made round-trip at least three times a year) and I listen to them to fall asleep. In fact, if I don't have an audiobook to listen to, I have *awful* insomnia. The one reason I've even thought about getting an iPod was so I could have all my books in one place.

    Some of the books I have I really treasure; the narrator is perfect, and I think the story gains something through being read. Others, I could take or leave. I especially love:
    Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman (I've listened to this five times, and I still laugh out loud)
    Ireland by Frank Delaney (read by the author, it's a book about an Irish story teller)
    Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (read by the guy who played Humphrey in the makes the language come alive)

    I'm currently listening to Moby Dick (started it when I was painting a room), and I think if I was reading it I'd hate it. As a spoken story, however, it's great!

    The one thing I don't like about audiobooks is their cost. :( You've inspired me-I think I'll post about this as well in the near future.

  17. Heather, I've reviewed a few audio books this year and I always have to remind myself to mention the fact that it's the audio version that I "read."

    I try to mention the reader, at least toward the end of the piece, because they are so key to the overall experience of the audio book. But I can understand anyone's reluctance to review them because I always wonder how my reaction to the written book would have compared to the audio's kind of tricky.

    I always hope I haven't mislead anyone.

  18. Good points, Eva, and hard to disagree with any of them.

    I was talking to a guy who has collected all of the Harry Potter books on CD and he was absolutely raving about the reader and how well he did the various accents and voices. He has taken to trying to find other books read by the same guy because he's become of fan of his as much as of the books.

    I particularly like it when British authors read their own books or when authors read their memoirs. And, of course, it's fun to see some famous actors get into this business, too.

    As for the cost...I think they're outrageous, honestly, and I generally get them from the library unless I find some really spectacular sale on one that I want or find it cheap on eBay.

  19. What you said, Sam. I can't concentrate on someone talking when I'm doing something else. And I just had a thought; I don't drive, and perhaps audiobooks are most popular for commuters, which would explain why I've never gotten used to them. (My commute is a 10 minute walk. I only listen to the birds.)

  20. Melanie, I hope you realize how lucky you are to have that "commute" with the sound of birds as the only traffic noise that you encounter. wow. :-)

  21. I don't listen to audiobooks (because I can't concentrate on them, in the same way you described not realizing you've tuned it out til you start listening again) but it would never even occur to me to consider it cheating or object to it in a book group. What if someone in the book group just loves stories, but has dyslexia or something else that makes reading laborious? My mother-in-law has an hour commute both ways, too, on a train, and she reads during that time. Is she cheating because she's using her commuting time for reading? If not, why is this driver any different? What if someone in a book group is blind and the audiobooks are cheaper than braille books (and I strongly suspect they are, as well as being more widely available at the library than braille books). What if someone gets motion sickness on a plane and reading makes it worse, but audiobooks tune out all the irritating noise of being on a plane? I can think of so many ways audiobooks are a great invention, and I don't even use them!

  22. Dewey, those are all great reasons for using audio books to supplement reading or to even make it possible at all for some people. No doubt about it.

    The whole "cheating" thing is something that bothers me personally for reasons I can't even explain to myself. I'm a stickler for playing by the rules, I guess, and I seem to have unconsciously made a rule for myself that a book is to be read in its original turning the pages. As much as I tell myself otherwise, and as often as I read that I shouldn't feel that I'm cheating by using audio books, I can't shake the feeling.

    Logically, I don't believe it's cheating...but my little guilt-meter keeps buzzing me otherwise. Weird, I know.


I always love hearing from you guys...that's what keeps me book-blogging. Thanks for stopping by.