Are audiobooks a substitute for physical books, or even e-books? What do you gain by hearing versus reading a book? What do you lose? And does anyone else feel as lost as I do without a physical book to devour?
I asked these questions last month (Audiobooks: The Chinese Food of Literature) because I noticed that listening to audiobooks was not as fulfilling as reading books. Audiobooks obviously have a place, and considerable merits. But even when I’m “reading” an audiobook, I still feel hunger for a book. A real book.
Despite the audiobook ads claiming that “listening is the new reading,” the experience I have with audiobooks doesn’t feel quite like “reading” to me. I wondered if anyone else felt similarly.
Filling Mental Time
For some people, including my husband, no walk, run, or road trip is complete without an audiobook. For these people, having a tale told fills otherwise wasted mental time.
And when the reader is particularly engaging, hearing a human voice can be engaging–and even make certain works more accessible.
When we would go on road trips when my girls were younger, we would get audiobooks out of the library and listen to them in the car. They were wonderful, and with just a few exceptions, riveting, engaging performances by the readers. It still gives me a chuckle to this day to think of Jim Dale reading Harry Potter’s Aunt Marge as she had more and more glasses of wine. I haven’t picked up an audiobook in years, but just thinking up of them brings back warm, fuzzy memories.—Michelle Crunkleton
I like audiobooks in the car, but sometimes I have to go get the book to see how something (usually a name) was spelled, or to clarify something confusing. On the other hand, sometimes it’s great to hear how something is supposed to sound, particularly in a language other than English. For instance, I got bogged down in Michener’s Poland because I would get so hung up on the pronunciation of the names and places that I couldn’t follow the narrative too well. When it was read to me, there wasn’t that problem, and I loved the book!—Margo Keyser
Frantic Without a Book
Perhaps I am just a visual learner. And yet this seems unlikely. I never had any problems listening in class, or learning from lectures. I adore literature in the form of theatre, too. So I know I can understand and retain aural information.
According to cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, in fact, scores on listening and reading comprehension tests are very highly correlated for most adults. The bottom line, Willingham says in his blog, is that “[f]or most books, for most purposes, listening and reading are more or less the same thing.” So much for the visual learner theory.
Even so, for me the experience of hearing a story is entirely different than reading it. When I listen to an audiobook, I don’t have the feeling that all is right with the world that I get when reading a physical book. I may understand the words, but I just don’t feel connected to the narrative, or drawn to go back to it.
Apparently I’m not the only one either. For some of us, there is no substitute for hearing a book read in your own voice, at your own pace.There is no substitute for that visceral sense with every turn of the page of far you have come and how much more you have left.
“Yes, I’m frantic without a book at hand!,” said Margo Keyser, even while noting that hearing books had its place. “Thank goodness I have easy access to several libraries.”
Focusing and Multi-Tasking
In the end, the issue may also come down to focus–or, in my case, the lack thereof.
“I tried an audiobook numerous times while driving and while walking on the treadmill, and my mind wanders. When I drive alone or go running, I more frequently daydream, listen to music, or talk on the phone. While walking alone I have elaborate conversations that include hand gestures and often talking aloud, to the extent that friends who pass me in their cars later comment. Meanwhile, a physical book in my hands keeps me focused, and my mind seldom wanders.”—Nancy Daffner
Like Nancy, I just can’t seem to keep my mind on the narrative when listening to audiobooks. I suspect this may be why they don’t stick with me. Why then had I never had trouble paying attention in class? Why am do I feel so connected to a play? What’s the difference?
Listening to an audiobook in the car, the answer came to me: In class I used to sit in the front row, and take notes (thanks, Phyllis Payne, for pointing that out to me). In the car, listening to an audiobook, I was watching the road, and the speedometer. I was fiddling with the temperature, checking road signs, turning the windshield wipers on and off.
Even when I listened as a passenger, my eyes drifted to the trees and houses outside the window. The highway rushing past. The cloud patterns on the mountains. And, yes, too often, my phone.
The same is true in a theatre. There my focus–eyes, ears, and all my other senses–is on the stage. My mind is fully engaged.
In short, my mind wanders when listening to audiobooks because I’m not just listening to audiobooks. I’m filling mental space, perhaps, but there is competition for that space, even during boring exercises.
All this makes me worry for the safety of my friends and family who seem to have no problem concentrating on audiobooks while driving or cycling. Surely something is being short-changed? Or maybe some of us simply can’t multitask when it comes to books.