Audio Books: Yay or Nay?


Some say it is cheating to listen to (read) an audiobook. Others say audiobooks are the only way they will ever read a book again. Personally, I am somewhere in between. I love the convenience and portability of the audiobook, but there is no substitute for curling up next to the fire on a rainy day with a well-loved paperback. With there being benefits and drawbacks to both arguments, here are some of the main concerns:


Do you get the same experience?

While you obviously are not holding a physical book, all the words are the same in the end, right? But do you still experience the story the way the author intended? While there are many variables to consider, University of Virginia psychologist Daniel Willingham argues, if you take the question from the perspective of cognitive psychology — the mental processes involved — there is no real difference between listening to a book and reading it. I am inclined to agree with him.

The sharing of information verbally has been around much, much longer than the written word. Even after books were invented, we still had the invention of the radio drama. Oral storytelling goes back many, many generations, and is still a part of many cultures to this day. New isn’t always better and old isn’t always bad.


Absorption, Retention and Recollection

Literary critic Harold Bloom proclaimed that audiobooks don’t allow for the “deep reading” that’s needed for learning. Optimal comprehension, he said, “demands the inner ear as well as the outer ear. You need the whole cognitive process, that part of you which is open to wisdom. You need the text in front of you.” While I wholeheartedly agree that optimal learning is done by both listening to and reading, I don’t think that level of comprehension and retention is necessary for the average reader. If you are reading for pleasure, as most of us do, then an audiobook will more than suffice.

Additionally, most people seem to forget that the average reader listens to an audio book while doing other things. When reading a physical book, it is practically impossible to do anything else, even eating or drinking is a challenge…at least in my experience. Multitasking is a great thing, but even the most remedial task can distract the mind. While multiple studies have been done over the years, almost all of them come to the same conclusion; for general consumption, audio books are the same as the physical books regarding absorption, retention, and recollection.


Unexpected benefits!

How do audiobooks help those with physical or intellectual disabilities, such as blindness or dyslexia? There are dozens of studies showing the benefits of audiobooks with all types of conditions. There are also several studies which claim audiobooks have a calming or lulling effect on insomniacs. There is even one study, showing how audiobooks have helped people recovering from strokes. Like listening to music, audiobooks can stimulate parts of the brain associated with attention, memory, language and mood. While an audiobook may not be right for you, they can definitely be beneficial to others.


Does genre preference play a role?

Yes! It plays a big part in the amount of information taken in and how much is retained. If a person doesn’t enjoy, or even strongly dislikes, the genre or style of the book they are reading, it will obviously affect the way they read, not to mention the amount of information they retain. They will either deem the information unimportant and retain very little or they will dislike it so much that they retain a great deal in order to express their dislike.


Who’s narrating your audiobook?

If the author is the one narrating the audiobook, then you have nothing to worry about –assuming the author is good at reading aloud. Unfortunately, it is not terribly common to have an author narrate their own audiobook. Therefore, when another person reads the story aloud, they will inevitably put their own spin on it. The narrator may read faster or slower than you would or they may pronounce words differently. Not to mention, the way they may emphasize or de-emphasize phrases or even entire events in the book.

Having dealt with many of these issues myself, I have found a solution to only one of them. The speed at which an audiobook is played can be altered to go faster or slower. Unfortunately, the pronunciation of words is something that cannot be altered. In the end, you really only have two options; you can choose to read the physical book, or you can just deal with the quirks of the narrator.


In the end, it all comes down to a reader’s preference. I hope that the world can find a balance between the two, as I have. Amazon clearly has embraced the idea of balance, as they now have the Audible/Kindle combo available. Who knows what other kinds of inventions could spring from such a harmony between new and old. I can’t wait to see what comes next.


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