Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Is listening to an audiobook different to reading a conventional book?

When first this audiobook month was proposed I was confronted with the truth that I know next to nothing about audiobooks. Although as a child I remember listening to Just William in the car, as well as Beverley Naidoo’s Journey to Jo’Burg and countless others, I have rather lost the habit as I’ve grown up. I downloaded (stole) some of Stephen Fry’s reading Harry Potter while at university, and a friend copied some individual chapters (Woolf, du Maurier, Dylan Thomas) onto my ipod a few years go which I enjoyed, but that is about it. I don’t listen to them, I don’t particularly want to listen to them, and I don’t have the concentration to do so even if I did. I don’t hate them; they just don’t register on my consciousness at all.

I suppose my instinctive sense is that listening to an audiobook is somehow cheating; that reading is the only way to fully appreciate a work of literature. This is in part due to the sheer number of classic works on audiobook that are abridged. How can one claim to have read a book, without actually encountering the entire text? Abridgements may convey some of the story, but like movie adaptations they tend to exclude character and setting, not to mention some of the lyricism of a great work.

Yet I am aware that many audiobooks are unabridged and that my judgement is excessively and unfairly negative. What about all the good audiobooks do: providing a means of engaging with literature for those who may not want or be able to read in the conventional sense, entertaining on a long car journey, interpreting and re-interpreting as with theatre. In spite my instincts, I believe strongly that audiobooks are a good thing.

But is there a difference between information gained with the eyes and that with the ears? The Oxford Shorter English Dictionary appears to say yes, defining the verb ‘to read’ as to:
Inspect and silently interpret or say aloud (letters, words, sentences etc) by passing the eyes or fingers over written, printed, engraved, or embossed characters.

This seems a rather narrow definition. How can we favour the gaining of information and enjoyment through the eyes or fingers over that which we gain through the ears?

But what do I know? I’ve already said that I don’t listen to audiobooks so why should I sit in judgement upon them. I’m ducking out of this firing line and passing it over to you, Vulp readers. Is there a difference between reading a book and listening to an audiobook? Or are they two sides of the same coin?

7 comments on “Is listening to an audiobook different to reading a conventional book?

  1. Moira
    September 17, 2010

    Reading and listening use different neural pathways. Not that I know a lot about neural pathways … but, hey! … when did that ever stop me pontificating? You can, after all, listen in the dark … and I frequently do, which often means that I have to rewind. (Zzzzzz ….)

    I also find that I remember books better if they’re read to me – which is interesting, and possibly because the visual cortex is out of the loop so the brain can dedicate more resources …

    I also find myself wondering if liking or not liking (or at least ‘being indifferent to’) audiobooks is partly a gender thing? Women, famously, can do more than one thing at a time. Most men have some problems in that department. One (who shall remain nameless) was supposed to be reviewing an audiobook for us until he discovered that he – and I quote – ‘hates being read to’. He was driving a car at the same time as listening – and he couldn’t. He says he almost wrote the car off … So his WIFE is reviewing the book instead …

  2. Teresa
    September 17, 2010

    I enjoy audiobooks, but I do think there’s a difference between reading in print and listening on audio. That doesn’t mean listening to an unabridged book is cheating (think of the visually impaired who rely on audiobooks). But certainly with an audiobook you’re somewhat at the narrator’s mercy when it comes to interpretation of the text, character voices, etc. That’s not necessarily a bad thing because some audio readers are quite good at bringing a book to life, but it’s still another person’s interpretation set on top of the plain text.

    I’ve also found that some books just don’t work well on audio. If I’m not completely focused and the book is dense, it’s not easy to flip back and “reread” as I might with a print book. Other books are great on audio precisely *because* the format makes me go along for the ride without worrying about details. Clockwork Orange was a great example of this. You just don’t have time to try to figure out what each word means, but by the end of the first disc I figured out I could understand well enough, and I had a *great* time listening to it.

  3. lisa
    September 17, 2010

    Bearing in mind that I’m an audiobooks newbie, I am going to answer that yes it is a different thing from actually reading a book. I tried to make sense of my thoughts on this in my piece yesterday, but to summarise: for me I found listening to an audiobook much harder than reading a paperback. Maybe it’s like Moira said and related to brain wiring…

  4. Jackie
    September 17, 2010

    I’m going to say that they’re 2 sides to the same coin. It’s a personal preference how much or often someone likes audiobooks, but I do think it’s a legitimate experience if one listens to a book instead of reading it themselves. For all those multitaskers, at least they’re being exposed to a book instead of say, a tabloid magazine.
    Like Lisa, I find audiobooks more difficult than reading visually, but it’s probably due to my hearing-impairment. But after my recent experience with “Four Quartets”(listening to it revealing greater layers), I think it’s possible, at least with poetry, that an audiobook could add extra depth to the piece.

  5. Fran
    September 21, 2010

    I discovered audiobooks for driving as I have to do some extensive travel for my job it was so boring and I never had any down time left to catch up on my reading – what a fabulous discovery – I am addicted! At first I borrowed CD’s from the library, now I down load them to my Ipod and they are worth it – I only listen to unabridged books – I hate that they would shorten a book – ridiculous! The best thing is that the narrators usually do great accents, words that are difficult to pronounce and different languages that are often hard to read – I LOVE AUDIO BOOKS and highly recommend them for a long drive – even for the family.

  6. Sharonrob
    September 26, 2010

    I’m relatively new to audio-books and can’t imagine them taking the place of reading in print. But I have no doubt as to their value to those who can’t read in the conventional sense as well as people who are travelling, doing chores or recovering from an illness. I listened to the first six Harry Potter audio-books while I was recuperating from a major operation (this was before the final book was published) and found that they gave me something else to focus on other than my tiredness and how long I’d have to wait till my next lot of painkillers.

    Audio-book listening definitely calls on a different set of skills to conventional reading, because the pace and interpretation are controlled by someone else. At the same time, a lot is still left to the listener’s imagination. My own experience led me to appreciate the leisured pace and deferred gratification offered by a good reading. I haven’t encountered any abridged audio-books yet, but am sure that the doubts that some people have about them are valid. At the same time, I’d like to know if it is possible to abridge in a way that is sensitive and appropriate and how far that makes a difference to the listener’s experience.

  7. Pingback: Talking Books: Audiobooks month – the Foxes Reflect « Vulpes Libris

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This entry was posted on September 17, 2010 by in Entries by Sam, Talking Books - Audio Book Month and tagged , , , .



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