Listening Is Not Reading

The rise of audiobooks has been exponential these last couple of years. After every YouTube video and during every episode of any podcast, there’s constantly the message about Audible’s free trial and their immense library of material. Audiobooks open up a world of opportunities for people who want to read more, but aren’t sure how to accomplish that goal. Now on their commute to work one can choose from listening to a British man with a deep, sexy voice reading a detective novel by Agatha Christie, to learning more about the history of milk and biscuits. The problem of not having the time to read has been solved without ever needing to find the time to start doing the deed itself. This, however, raises an important question – is listening to books truly the same as reading them?

Reading has been a hobby for us humans for quite a significant amount of time. So significant, in fact, that ancient Greeks would read their favourite Stephen King novels, just as now we read our favourite George R. R. Martin ones. Though reading a physical book (or kindle, if you swing that way), requires a particular something which audiobooks lack by definition – being proactive. Not physically active, but rather taking the book into your hand, laying on the bed and for a set amount of time focusing on this one particular activity without any distractions. All of your attention is fixed on moving your eyes from one end of the page to the other all the while trying to understand why the hell you have no memory of the last 3 pages of this Benjamin Franklin autobiography. Eventually, little by little, you start unravelling the masterfully incorporated references, realising why the main character is feeling the way he is and how in the world he ended up speaking to your grandmother in that cosy café in Paris. For all of this to happen, you need to be an active reader, which means concentrating all of your mental abilities on analysing the words read and trying to understand their hidden, deeper meaning (or, at least, their regular meaning if you’re like me). Audiobooks, because of their nature of being a secondary, accompanying activity, makes it very easy to miss out on an important word, sentence or even a paragraph as we were too busy screaming at that black BMW who just cut us off in traffic. How bloody rude of them!

One could argue that this ‘flaw’ could easily be killed off by dropping the idea that listening to audiobooks is something that can be done alongside other tasks. Then, laying on your bed listening to an audiobook should be the same as reading a traditional, second-hand book you got 7 years ago for Christmas. If that’s the case , you might as well get the real deal in the first place. You get to create the voices of the characters yourself, figure out what the author intended to be emphasised yourself, and, most importantly, get to set the pace for the book the way you prefer, too. It’s a much more engaging pursuit than simply taking in an already prepared information package, though undoubtedly it takes more mental fortitude as well. Audiobooks are like eating at a restaurant – it can be more appealing and delicious, but a meal prepared at home can come out just as well if you’re willing to put in the work, not to mention you can customise every little detail according to your tastes and preferences. A custom-made suit is always a better fit than the off-the-rack one.

There are quite a few alternatives for audiobooks to brighten your monotonous morning jogs. Podcasts, for one, can provide a similar experience to a recorded book, though it has a much more accessible format than a book does due to their similarity to a regular everyday conversation. Music is another great alternative – simply google ‘top 50 albums you must listen before you die’ of your beloved genre and you’ll be kept busy for the next few days at the least. It’s actually astounding how large of a variety of podcasts and artists you can find out there nowadays. There are as many mainstream ones as there are underground ones who’s creative endeavours are meant not for the millions, but for the few hundred folks who tune in every week to see what some random fellow on the other side of the globe is up to. The internet, as it turns out, is pretty cool.

All of this blabbering about audiobooks being inferior to pretty much everything in the world doesn’t mean that they’re useless in any way. In fact, it’s far better to listen to an audiobook while washing the dishes than swearing continuously for 10 minutes that you’ve forgotten to buy dish soap again. However, reading is an activity that requires immense concentration and you’re quite unlikely to receive the same comprehension of the material as you would through listening to someone else’s voice than through your own inner monologue. Though with books it’s never truly a monologue – reading is discussing issues with the author, with a character, and sometimes even with yourself. Reading is an adventure to be sung about, and not a song to be listened to. Audible is the fast food of reading, and even though It’s undeniably delicious, it’s usually better to stick to the good old fashioned vegetables, fruits, and cellulose.