Listening to Books vs. Reading Books

Audiobooks are clearly growing in popularity. They are convenient, something that can be listened to while driving or exercising or doing chores. But do they really, as so many people insist, provide the same experience as sitting down and reading a book?

First, a bit of history. There was a time when I did a lot of driving, either long commutes or trips to other places. That was when I discovered “books on tape”, which were the precursor of the digital audiobooks we have today. A book on tape consisted of numerous cassette tapes (later transitioning to compact discs as they became common components of car stereos). They could either be bought in stores or borrowed from libraries. I listened to many books in this fashion, and they really did help to pass the time.

Many titles in those days were abridged, meaning that they had been shortened. And often that was done poorly, resulting in confusion on the part of the listener as the story bizarrely jumped forward without explanation. I quickly learned to avoid abridged titles, and the practice is rare today.

Let’s start by considering a more extreme example: Can someone who has watched the three Lord of the Rings movies claim to have read the trilogy? The answer is obviously no. The movies omit scenes from the books, change some events, and add others. On the other hand, the viewer has experienced the same basic story, and could discuss it intelligently with someone who had only read the books. Still, watching a film version of a book is clearly different from reading the book.

Reading is all about using ones imagination. A fiction author is trying to convey with words something that they have imagined. The reader uses their own imagination to form images in their head that certainly differ from what the author had in mind. In that sense, no two readers experience a book in the same exact way, which it the complete opposite of two people that watch the same movie.

Now on to the real question: Is listening to someone narrate a book equivalent to reading it? It’s obviously much closer than watching a movie version, but the answer is still no. The narrator is coloring the experience, even if only slightly. They might even be coloring it severely, employing different accents and speech patterns. The listener is thus deprived from fully employing their own imagination.

There are other issues. Many books, particularly fantasy ones, have one or more maps at the beginning. (Even a non-fiction work might start with maps or other visual information.) Not being able to see (and refer) to those maps may make the book confusing to listen to at times. The listener also can’t tell if a sentence is all in italics, something that is often used to portray a character’s inner thoughts. Again, that can lead to confusion on the part of a listener.

So, does this mean that I’m against audiobooks? No. They serve a useful purpose, and they are a necessity for the blind. Eventually, I may even offer audio versions of my own works. Audiobooks are fine. I really just want people to be accurate. If you listened to a book then say just that. And if you listened to something that your really liked, then maybe considering reading it next time to get the full experience.