Audiobooks: Listening vs. Reading

They say that with age comes wisdom, and that part of wisdom is the ability to allow your opinions to be changed with changing facts, arguments, or the natural flow of time. Long time readers will no doubt recall the opinion I once held that audiobooks were not for me. It is interesting to look at that post from nearly 3 years ago and the 4 arguments I made against my own use of audiobooks, and compare them to how my opinions have changed today.

1. The voice bothers me

I wrote,

I am so used to my own internal voice, and the voices I make up in my head for various characters, that I can’t bear the voice of someone else reading to me.

I look upon this statement today as both naive and somewhat self-centered. Since February 2013, I’ve read 80 audiobooks, and if anything, I have learned that the narrator tends to enhance the book rather than detract from it. Indeed, today I would argue that there is at least one advantage to audiobooks over regular books:

A good audiobook narrator will lead me to books I might otherwise not have chosen to read

The one dimension to audiobooks that doesn’t exist in other forms of the books (paper, electronic) is the narrator or narrators who read the books. I have found that I enjoy some narrators so much, that I will seek out other books that they have read, books that I might never have chosen to read if not for the narrator. A few examples of these include:

  • Danse Macabre by Stephen King. Read primarily because it was narrated by William Dufris, a narrator I first heard read John Scazli’s The Human Division. I probably would have gotten to the book eventually, but Dufris brought me to it much sooner, and I enjoyed the book.
  • Blue Highways by William Least-Heat Moon. My dad recommended this book to me years ago, but I didn’t read it until early this summer when I discovered that Joe Barrett narrated the audiobook version. I first heard Joe Barrett as the narrator of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, and as soon as I finished that book, I started looking for other books that Barrett narrated.

Seeking out books because of the narrator provides yet another window into a book that I might not already have read. My “internal voice” which I was so used to three years ago would never have led me to these narrators and thus opened the doors to these other great books.

2. I cannot divide my attention to make listening and doing something else worthwhile.

This is an example of not seeing the big picture. To a large extent, I was forced to audiobooks precisely because I found that my time during the day was too limited to allow me to read as much as I wanted to read. The big lure of audiobooks was that I could multitask. This has become my biggest time saving tip, one that I have talked about in a variety of places, including my “How I Work” interview with Lifehacker earlier this year.

My days are very busy. I try to break them up with exercise, and my preferred exercise is to take long walks at various times throughout the day. During these walks, I listen to audiobooks, and I can usually ensure at least 2 hours of walking–and therefore 2 hours of listening time–each day.

I find that I have little problem dividing my attention between walking and listening to audiobooks. Occasionally my attention wanders, but it is easy to go back and re-listen to what it was I missed. The same happens when reading a book from time-to-time.

Moreover, I can listen to audiobooks while doing things that I can’t do while reading: chores around the house being one big example. And then, of course, there is listening to audiobooks while on long drives where I am the driver.

So, yes, I was absolutely wrong when I said that I could not divide my attention between listening to an audiobook and doing some other kind of activity. The bulk of my listening has occurred while doing other things.

3. Reading aloud tends to be too slow for me

What I wrote was,

I am by no means a speed-reader, but I do read somewhat faster than the pace of reading aloud. It is just too slow for me and I find myself growing impatient.

It is true that reading aloud is slower than reading silently. On the other hand, I can listen to audiobooks while doing things that I can’t do while reading (see #2 above).

But I’ve also discovered another advantage to the slower pace of audiobooks: I get more out of the book. When reading a book, especially fiction, I tend to read faster and faster as I get toward the end of the book, excited to see how things come out. Of course, this speed sacrifices some comprehension. I didn’t realize how much comprehension until I listened to an audiobook that I had once read before. The pace of the book is the same throughout. It means that instead of racing at the end, I am continuing on at the same pace as before, and I get more out of the book than I did when I was reading it.

I have tried, once or twice, listening to a book on a faster pace–something the Audible app allows you to do. However, part of my pleasure in listening to an audiobook is the narrator, and once the pace is sped up, the narrator doesn’t sound right to me.

4. For me, reading is an active thing

Three years ago I wrote,

Finding that groove where the words start to fade away and the scenes flow smoothly through my head is a kind of heaven that I haven’t been able to achieve listening to audio books.

I just hadn’t given it a chance. When I get into an audiobook, the “narration” fades into the background and the scenes flow smoothly through my head.

Still, this touches on another important element of audiobooks:

Reading vs. listening

I have, in my posts that talk about my reading since I started listening to audiobooks, referred to my activity as “reading.” It has been pointed out to me that when I say I “read” a book that I actually listened to, I am not accurately describing what I am doing. I concede this point, and further, I admit that reading and listening are two different activities, each with its pros and cons.

That said, I believe that a person who reads a book, and another person who listens to the unabridged audio version of the same book, come away with the same text and are able to discuss the book in detail. One person read the words and one person had the words read to them, but they were the same words.

When I refer to “reading” an audiobook, I realize that what I have been doing is using a shorthand. Saying I “read” Stephen King’s Revival is simple. Saying that I “listened” to Stephen King’s Revival is more accurate, but also can lead to more explanation. (“You listened to it?” “Yes.” “How?” “Through the audiobook.” “Oh, is there an app for that?” “Yes.” “How much does it cost?”, etc. etc.) My intention was not to deceive anyone into thinking that I read the book in the traditional sense. I used the term “read” as a common shorthand for having consumed the text in such a way as to (a) be able to enjoy it and (b) be able to speak about it with the same degree of authority as anyone else who read the book. Indeed, those books that I listened to are colored coded orange on my list of what I have read since 1996. (On the plaintext version of the list, audiobooks are indicated by the @ symbol.)

To avoid confusion, I am likely to continue to use the term “read” even when I listen to a book, but I acknowledge that this is shorthand, and that reading and listening are two different activities.

I am often chagrined at how much my opinions can change in a relatively short period of time, but these days I look at it as just part of growing older. No doubt I will initially reject the next reading technology to come along, only to find myself embracing it a few years later. Such is the nature of the human character.


  1. I still need to be doing something of only moderate attention in order to listen to an audiobook, and to have a good chunk of time to do it. This is why I listen to so many podcasts…its more of a bite sized form than a lot of audiobook chapters.

    With not driving to Iowa (~5 hours one way) anymore, I’ve listened to a lot less audiobooks than I used to. I really need a long driving trip…

  2. On changing your mind: I think it was either Malcolm Gladwell or Alain de Botton who surmised that we are likely to (should?) be changing our mind all the time. It means we’re thinking! Well done! 🙂


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