Why Listening to a Book Is Not the Same as Reading It

It's better. But only in certain cases.

Posted Dec 10, 2018

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A recent New York Times opinion piece by Daniel Willingham addressed the question of whether listening to a book is the same as reading it. Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, speaks with authority: He is a leading researcher of reading comprehension. He begins the piece with a frequently asked question: “Is it cheating if I listen to an audiobook for my book club?” 

Willingham gives an even-handed answer, doling out points to both the written and the spoken word. He argues that they’re both worthwhile but is careful to note that doesn’t mean they are equivalent. Far from it. I’ve been listening to audiobooks for years now, and while it's not my professional obligation to do so, I’ve also spent quite a bit of time thinking about the trade-offs with listening versus reading. In line with Willingham’s notes in the article, I listen to audiobooks when I wouldn’t otherwise be engaging a book—say, at the gym or while walking. That’s certainly an advantage of listening over reading. But I was surprised to find that Willingham didn’t mention what I consider to be the biggest difference between the two mediums: Engagement. 

The critical difference, for me, between reading and listening is that reading is something you do, where listening is something that happens to you. Reading is an act of engagement. The words on the page aren’t going to read themselves, which is something they literally do in an audiobook. If you’re not actively taking in written information, then you’re not going to make progress on the book. Audiobooks, on the other hand, make progress with or without your participation. You can tune out, your mind wandering around the subject at hand, and there will still be forward motion in the story. 

Willingham alludes to this point by saying that harder books—“difficult texts” as he calls them—require more engagement. Sometimes you need to go back and reread things. That means that harder material is better suited to reading rather than listening. But I’m not sure I agree with that characterization. 

Rather what is better suited to reading is technical material. We would never to think to listen to a math problem. We know that in order to understand it, we have to sit there and dissect it. Similarly, if there’s a step-by-step argument—where A leads to B, and B leads to C, and all of that implies D—which you really want to take in, then you should probably be reading that text, not listening to it. 

But this is different than the idea of listening to “difficult” material. For example, I’ve recently been listening to David Graeber’s excellent Debt: The First 5000 Years. Written for a general audience, it’s still a tough read—lots of information, lots of evidence, lots of arguments. And I can assure you: I haven’t picked up on every nuance he’s laid down. But that doesn’t mean that I’m better off going out to get a hard-copy of the book and reading it on the page. 

The reason is that, frankly, I’m just not going to do that. It’s not a high enough priority on my reading list. It’s either engage with the material via audiobook or don’t encounter it at all. 

And while I haven’t retained every piece of information that he’s presented, I have spent a lot more time thinking about an important topic than I otherwise would. There’s almost no other venue in my life in which the social history of debt would come up. Yet Graeber’s account is totally fascinating. He makes compelling counterintuitive arguments about where debt came from and what its social function is. I’m better off for having contemplated them. I’ve grappled with this difficult topic for hours at this point, sustaining attention toward a problem in a way that I otherwise wouldn't. This fill-in-the-cracks nature of audiobooks is a critical advantage.

Ultimately, I think it’s fair—necessary even—to consider audiobooks and written texts as fundamentally different mediums. Asking which is superior is a bit like asking, “Should I see the movie or read the book?” or even “Should I read the summary article or the entire book?” They are different forms based on the same work. Which one you should engage depends on what you are willing to give to it (time, above all) and what you hope to get out of it.

Perhaps the most crucial difference between an audiobook and a written text is the presence of the narrator. 

A written text has no narrator besides the one in your head. And it does its best to render the author's tone faithfully. But anyone who listens to audiobooks knows that the narrator makes a huge difference, just as the casting makes an impact on a play. Listening to American Gods with a full cast versus a single narrator? Are you kidding, is that even a choice? Same with authors, especially actors and comedians, reading their own books. Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime wouldn’t be such a hit if it weren’t read by Noah himself doing all the accents and lending the narrative a this-was-my-life pathos. It builds in a dynamic that just doesn’t exist in the same form with written texts. 

So, no, listening to a book isn’t cheating. Depending on the performance of the text, it might even be the better option. And you shouldn’t just limit yourself to “easy” works like popular memoirs or Jack Reacher novels if your interests range beyond them. At the end of the day, time spent contemplating new ideas and experiencing new worlds is what matters. And if audiobooks open new ideas and worlds for you, then that’s all that counts. 

About the Author

Cody Kommers

Cody Kommers, who manages a computational cognitive neuroscience lab at Harvard University, is also a science writer.

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