What It Means to Read a Book

black corded headphones with colorful books in between
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A troll on Reddit1 had a post in r/books that berated anyone who considered listening to an audiobook “reading.” Their post has since been deleted (possibly they realized how silly they sounded) but part of their claim was that it wasn’t reading unless you were doing it with your own eyes and brain.

I posted a brief, mild objection to that claim, but I figured I could elaborate at length here by asking what it means to read a book.

I have previously written that when I listen to an audiobook, I colloquially refer to “reading” the book. My reasoning is that how I consumed the book is less important than the discussion of the book itself. Also, if I say, “I recently listened to…” it inevitably leads to a discussion about the mechanics of audiobooks, which further digresses from the point of the conversation.

For anyone who is still learning to read, the act of reading words from a page is important to build the skill. There is no doubt about that. But at some point, at least based on my own experience, the skill plateaus. At least, I’ve gotten to a point where I don’t feel like my abiliity to read is getting noticably better, even though I read more than ever before.

Once the skill has been established, however, what matters most to me is the content. Let’s use a real example. I am currently reading The Rising Sun by John Toland. And when I say “reading” I mean mostly listening to the audiobook. That said, I frequently take notes when I read so I also have an old paperback edition of the book that I follow along with.

Now, if I listen to the audiobook and you read the paperback, we can both still have a detailed and in-depth discussion of the book and will recognize what the other person is talking about. I didn’t use my eyes and you didn’t use your ears, but we both consumed the same content and ended up at the same place. That seems to be the most important thing.

And besides, the idea that reading has to be done with one’s eyes must be incredibly insulting to blind and otherwise visually impaired people who read using their fingers. Add my old college pal Rusty (who was blind) to our little reading group and let him read a Braille edition of The Rising Sun and he, too, can discuss the decline and fall of the Japanese empire along with us. We are all on the same page, so to speak.

Content is what matters. I’m reminded of a passage from Isaac Asimov’s memoir In Memory Yet Green, when he describes the oral exams for his Ph.D in biochemistry. He was asked by one of his examiners how he knew the potassium iodide he used was indeed potatssium iodide. Asimov responded, “Well, sir, it disolves as potassium iodide does, and yields iodine as potassium iodide does, and it gives me my end point as potassium iodide would, so it doesn’t matter what it really is, does it?” The same can be said for reading The Rising Sun on paper, on audiobook, or in Braille. The words are in the same order, so what does it matter?

Indeed, content is so much the key to this that I find myself getting annoyed when the content doesn’t quite line up. While the audiobook version matches the main body of text in the paper edition, the footnotes in the audiobook are sometimes truncated. That annoys me and I find myself pausing the audiobook at every footnote I come across in paper edition so that I don’t miss any.

Reading in its broadest sense, which encompasses consuming written content in different forms, is one way that we learn new things and improve ourselves. It should be accessible to everyone, and yet there are people who struggle with it and potentially miss out on its benefits. Moreover, before young children have the ability to read we read to them. Audiobooks are a great tool for bridging this gap, bringing content and knowledge to people who might not otherwise get it.

For me, reading a book is to consume its content. The method of consumption may go through your eyes, your ears, or your fingers, but they are just conduits to your brain which is where the magic happens.

When I say I read a book, it means I may have listened to the audiobook, or read the paper or e-book edition, or any combination thereof. How I consumed it shouldn’t matter. What matters is what I got out of it.

Written on March 12, 2022.

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  1. Can you believe such a thing?


  1. I completely agree. The argument as to whether or not a book “counts” if it’s an audiobook seems silly to me, except in the narrow context of a child learning to read. As the saying goes, 6 of one, half dozen of the other!

  2. Listening to an audiobook is not reading, but it is equivalent to reading. Whether listening or reading, the book has entered your brain.


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