I’ve been reading a wonderful book: Spark by John J. Ratey. It’s about the effect exercise has on the brain. It’s revolutionary and pretty much eviscerates the mind/body problem. But that’s a topic for another time. My concern at the moment is that I haven’t really been reading it. I’ve been listening to it on my iPod. And I wonder, does that count as reading? Last year I listened to Julia Child’s autobiography My Life In France (loved it!), and now I tell people I’ve read it. Am I lying? Is it the same thing to hear and to read? Do I have an obligation to tell people that it was an audiobook? I feel this compulsion for full disclosure, but maybe I’m just obsessing. So, I ask all of you, should I be specific of how I got through the book, or are the “reading” and “listening” interchangeable in this context?
5 comments on “Are audiobooks making me a liar?”
Probably not. It depends on the context. There are two relevant meanings to the word “read” here. No. 1 means to receive and attempt to comprehend a stream of text material. You have done that. The other definition in play here, no. 2, is to visually perceive and decipher two-dimensional symbolic representations of language. If, in the context of the conversation, you would have reasonably understood the person with whom you are talking to comprehend the word “read” according to definition no. 2, then you would have lied. (E.g.: Other person: “Reading makes my eyes hurt.” You: “Me too, usually. But I just read My Life in France, and my eyes weren't bothered at all.”) I imagine, however, that your conversation did not have such context. Most of the time, when people say they have “read” something, their meaning is in sense no. 1. Usually it is a distinction without a difference. But not always. If “read” could only mean sense no. 2, then many visually impaired persons would have to lose credit for a great number of books they have read. I think it is reasonable and ultimately socially desirable to use words in a disability-neutral way, regardless of whether the sender or receiver of the communication has a disability.
As one who has drifted almost exclusively to audio books over the years for various reasons, I have found that my consumption of audio material is often more beneficial than the written version. Some of this is personal approach to be sure, but I wouldn't think there is necessarily any reason to undervalue audio vs written consumption.
One caveat I would point out is that often, perhaps more often in audio than in written format, audio formats are often abridged. When one consumes abridged material as a matter of course, it might make sense to indicate that.
Perhaps a different verb should begin to be used, as it seems alternative forms of taking in media are becoming more popular and more convenient. Would it be wrong to use a phrase that could refer to either reading or listening? Certainly one would not be lying in either case by saying, “I've been occupying myself with Julia Childs' autobiography.” It is also, as Chris Horn points out, disability neutral.
My sister once asked a teacher, who was giving bonus points for reading x hours a day, if she could watch television with subtitles on and have it count. This brings a new question up: if “reading” extends to audiobooks, would it then extend to movie versions? Movies tend to deviate from and abbreviate their printed counterparts. However, Chris pointed to the fact that audiobooks are often abridged. So, if a movie has been made with meticulous attention paid to carrying on the plot of a book, would seeing the movie count has having “read” the book? Where is the line drawn?
Why would reading a book and listening to someone read a book be the same? I don't think it makes you a liar, we just don't have a good verb for it yet. Personally, I'm a fan “audioreading”, which I just made up when I started the sentence. It's sort of like the argument from the conversation after American Splendor about digital media not being as good as the solid thing, but I just don't understand why they're even comparable. Different sense utilization means a different experience, and so, something different. An audiobook engages your ears and then your brain comprehends the words which forms meaning. A book engages your eyes and then your brain comprehends the words which forms meaning. Same outcome, but the tools are different, so it should be called something different – instead forever being compared to the good ol' days.