To Read or not to Read: A Discussion on Audiobook Usage

I love audiobooks. They’re a wonderful way to learn and go through books while accomplishing other less exciting tasks (dishes, I’m looking at you).

In fact, some of my favorite childhood memories take place on the living room couch where my mom read aloud to my siblings and me. We explored Narnia with the Pevensie children, settled the prairie with Laura Ingalls Wilder, laughed at the drama of Anne spelled with an E, and gaped at the disastrous failure of Napoleon’s attempt to invade Russia in 1812.

While these living room adventures were not accomplished using digital audio, I still consider them to be categorized with audiobooks since my role was passive--I was not reading the words myself.

Does it really count, though?

How many times have you been in a conversation with someone about reading, and someone mentions a favorite book they read along with the disclaimer, “But I only listened to it as an audiobook, if that counts”?

This happens in many of my book-themed conversations, and, in light of both this year’s reading challenge and the Pew Research Center's recent findings that audiobook usage is up to 20% of book consumption (compared to 12% in 2015), I think it’s time to have a conversation about it.

At its root, the concern about the use of audiobooks is whether or not it is equal to physically reading a book, and that is what this article will consider.

Is using an audiobook a legitimate way of reading?

Here’s the thing, the answer to this question cannot be generalized; it is unique to you and how you can get what you want out of the books you are reading. For some, listening to a book may not do the trick; for others, it is the only way they like to read.

To make the decision of whether or not you should use audiobooks, you can ask yourself a few questions.

What’s the point?

Why are you reading a book in the first place? Reading is essentially a transfer of knowledge from the page to the brain, and so far in our discussion, audiobooks complete this task just fine. Maybe there are finer criteria points that caused you to choose the specific book you want to read, but in the end-goal is always the same: information.

What kind of book am I reading?

Are you reading an autobiography?

A novel?

An analysis of the economy?

Answering this is important, because certain types of books are not designed to be listened to. A book listing off a string of statistics might be harder to follow through audio than if you were to read it. Likewise, listening to an autobiography can completely change the way you understand the book as it is (especially if it’s read aloud by its author).

Got your genre? Good. Next, consider your reasons.

Why do I want to listen to this book?

There is no shame in preferring to listen to a book instead of reading it (or vice versa), but to get the most out of either option, think about your reasons.

Maybe there’s a 683-page novel that is less intimidating to listen to. Perhaps your chosen book covers a topic you only have the time or desire to think about during your commute. Are you looking for some good listening material for your walks? Or maybe you need an option for nights when insomnia hits.

Regardless of your reasons, think about them and consider whether or not using an audiobook will help you.

Finally, let’s be brutally honest with ourselves.

Am I going to engage with the audiobook?

A common complaint I hear (and experience myself) is that the mind tends to wander a bit while listening to an audiobook, and while we’re mentally disengaged, the book continues to read itself regardless of our state of attention.

Will your mind wander sometimes? Absolutely.

Does this mean that you can’t benefit from an audiobook? Absolutely not.

I have listened to many audiobooks throughout the years, and while I don’t remember quite as many things from them as I would if I had read them, I still have more information than if I hadn’t listened to them at all. In all honesty, I probably never would have made it through some of the books I’ve listened to if I had tried to physically read them.

Because of audiobooks, I have more knowledge. I may have to rewind every now and again, but I’m still gaining, and you can too.

Are there benefits to reading a book instead of listening to it? Of course! However, listening to an audiobook has its own kinds of benefits, and it is a wonderful way to explore the literary world, no matter what you’re interested in. Carefully considering your desired outcomes through this tool will help you maximize its fullest potential.

Written by Alexandria Garcia

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