Is Listening To Audiobooks Reading? Does It Matter?

The topic of the moment for the reading and writing sphere is audiobooks and whether or not listening to an audiobook is considered “reading.” It’s much more of a multifaceted issue than one might think at first; while initially easy to dismiss with a simple, “No, it’s listening,” there’s a lot to unpack in a discussion like this.

First we should consider that the current definition of reading typically involves something with “written or printed matter” and “characters or symbols.” We should be equally aware going into this that definitions change with time and that definitions are descriptive, not prescriptive.

The reason this definition is important is because people love to draw lines and then make judgments based on those lines. It was hard enough getting ebooks accepted as a valid form of reading, because apparently words on a screen are completely different than the same words on a page.

In a perfect world, the consumption of media — and perhaps the type of media we consume — would be more important than the definitions we assign to the act of consumption. That is, we should be happy that people are consuming books in any form rather than fighting over what “reading” means.

But we don’t live in that world, and it’s important to recognize that. Because reading is seen as many things: a necessity, a sign of privilege and education, and a way to improve oneself. There’s some ableism and classism to be found in a definition that restricts literacy to those with the access to, and ability to consume, printed media. So when the definition of reading is something that potentially excludes people based on factors like disability and class, and when we as a society then use that definition to refer to something important or to some measure of success, there can be an issue there.

We’ve acknowledged this in part when referring to Braille, which we say is “read” and not “felt.” We say similar things about people who use text-to-speech as a tool to assist with visual impairment when using the internet. We even say that we read aloud rather than speak if we’re reading from a book. So we’re okay with fudging the definition a little in some cases so that reading isn’t bound to just one sense. We still seem to have some trouble with audiobooks, though.

One of the reasons people push for audiobooks to be seen as valid “reading” material, outside of the accessibility aspect, is because there’s a stigma attached to not reading. We saw this with ebooks before, and to some extent with things like comics or fanfiction. Most of those are printed media, too, but they didn’t count either. People want to escape this stigma, but find it difficult because so much media just doesn’t seem to make the cut.

And that’s where we might want to consider possible motivations behind the definition as it is. People tout the educational aspects of reading, such as learning spelling, grammar, and punctuation, but then that might imply that the educational aspects are the point of reading and not just benefits. (Besides, many of these benefits also come to listening to books.) Even if our only motivation is trying to be consistent with the current definition, we still have to recognize what this means for people who consume all the same media as we do, but because of this definition, don’t or can’t read. Sure, we can easily say they “listen” or “feel” instead, but that doesn’t carry the same weight or implications as reading.

It can be seen a form of pedantry almost; if I read a print book and someone else listened to the audiobook, I know they got the same story I did, so I’m not going to pick at details. I can pull out my well-loved copy of Order of the Phoenix and someone else can listen to the fabulous voice of Jim Dale, and we’ll be in the same place at the end.

But for some, defining the action is just as important as the results. If someone tells you to read a book, but then uses their own definition of reading, you might be out of luck if you aren’t able to do that the same way as everyone else. It doesn’t matter if you’ll have gotten all the same words in the same order and came out with the same knowledge of the material as everyone else — for some, that just doesn’t matter.

This blog isn’t necessarily a hardcore defense of audiobooks being a form of reading, though I do find myself in that camp. Rather, it’s to point out how complicated this can get, and to urge people taking part in this discussion to really question why we think the way we do. This, like almost any other issue, is far more complicated than it seems on the surface. This could mean we might do well with a new definition, to change the old one, or to work at changing our perception of the value of consumption of a broader range of media, not just the kind that falls under the narrow definition of “reading.”

Photo by Melanie Pongratz on Unsplash

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