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Audio or Print Books?

Today at the library, I helped an older patron who was trying to figure out the best way to download audio books. Specifically, he wanted "access to all of the good books and none of the bad ones." I resisted getting drawn into that conversation (good or bad is so subjective, and it depends entirely on your personal and idiosyncratic needs as a reader; many times books I find horrendous are other patrons' favorites), but then he asked me what we call that.

"If you listen to a book instead of reading it,” he asked, “do you call it reading? Did I read that book? Or just listen to it?”

Which really is an interesting question. “To read” is defined as the act of receiving or understanding something, especially by way of letters or numbers. So in theory you don’t really “read” an audio book. But you do receive or understand the story, just through your ears, not your eyes. And when the person performing the book says the story out loud, he or she is reading it. So in theory, you do “read” an audio book.

I guess it doesn’t really matter if you say you “read” an audio book or you “listen” to it. You’re ingesting story, you’re making your life more interesting, you’re using your imagination and your brain cells and your intelligence.

I do think I have a different experience with the books I’ve read in print versus those I read in audio. (As audio?) I’m even pickier with audio books than I am with print books. The reader’s voice has to be exactly right for me to enjoy it. One of the first audio books I tried listening to was Swamplandia!, for example, but I only lasted about ten minutes as the reader’s voice was so overpoweringly little-girlish I couldn’t stand it. And I recently attempted The Witch Elm but that reader’s voice was just far too smug. I mean: the main character himself might also be smug, but I was overwhelmed with the smugness.

Last year, I read half of The Power as an audio book. My Overdrive checkout ended when I was halfway through, and I was desperate to find out how it ended, and luckily there was a print copy at the library. So I checked it out and finished it. I loved experiencing that story in that way. There are two readers for the story, and their voices were both perfect, powerful and with a hint of an accent I couldn’t quite describe. Their voices stayed with me as I finished the print copy and it made the entire reading experience much richer somehow.

Some books I can finish easier when I listen to them; if there’s something frustrating or annoying about the book, I can deal with it easier by listening (so long as the voice feels right to me). What Should be Wild is a book I’d likely have started but not finished in print, but it matched the atmosphere of when I was listening to it (late October) so well that I continued until the (fairly disappointing) end.

Last year, when I was training for my marathon, I decided to listen to The Hunger Games trilogy during my long runs. I got so sucked in that I also listened to them while I was gardening, cooking dinner, and a few times even hiking. Maybe this is my favorite way to read audio books, as stories I’ve already read in print version. I know the outcome, so I can follow the story much easier, and then I start to notice different things. I’ve read that series three or four other times, but listening to it made me feel things I didn’t expect. The violence seemed more startling, the wrenching decisions more difficult. In fact, when I listened to the very beginning of the first book, when Katniss takes Prim’s place, I had to stop running because I was crying so hard.

At any rate, I told the patron that yes: he can say he reads audio books. He seemed relieved, as if there was a subtle sense of shame at the fact that he was listening. And while audio books will never take the place of regular print books for me, I love having access to them. Reading, after all, is about stories, and humans have told stories aloud for far longer than the printing press has been around.  

What format do you prefer?


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