The Great Audiobook Debate
by Samantha Dietel '23
Stop Asking Whether It Counts as Reading
There is no greater debate in the book world than whether audiobooks count as reading. Avid readers will argue that listening to a book while busy doing other things cannot compare to sitting down and holding a book in your hands. Many people view listening to a book as cheating—a fake accomplishment. Others find that audiobooks are a great way to stay caught up with your reading goals if you are dealing with a busy schedule and are always on the go. Additionally, there’s the added benefit of choosing the speed you want the book to be. If you’re looking to keep up your reading goals while making the most of your time, an audiobook sounds perfect. However, if your goal is to optimize retention and learn the material of a book, listening to the text may not be the best path.
Numerous psychological studies have been conducted on the format in which books are presented and what relationship this has with our comprehension and retention of the material. Based on their results, it would seem that the old-fashioned physical copy of a book is the best way to read. When reading, research has found that 10 to 15 percent of eye movement is spent rereading what we have already read. This process of rereading happens so quickly that we don’t even realize we’re doing it. However, it can significantly increase our comprehension of the text—far more than listening to the text read aloud to us.
Further, as college students, we are all busy and often try to manage multiple activities at once. It is for this reason that an audiobook may seem so appealing. However, with this busy schedule, it is not uncommon for our minds to wander as we read. This occurs no matter the book’s format. However, with a physical book, it is much easier to find the place where you lost your train of thought. You might still be on the same page or even paragraph. With an audiobook, however, it is more difficult to find where you drifted from the text as the speaker kept going, whether you were paying attention or not.
The distinction between reading formats may be most important when reading for class. If you know that the material being covered in the book is important to comprehend, you need to consider which format will help you learn best. A study from 2010 showed that students who read a lesson on paper performed significantly better on a comprehension quiz than students who listened to a podcast of the same lesson. This continues to support the idea that having the text in front of you and going through the physical process of reading is the best way to retain what you have read.
However, the need to retain the material depends entirely on your purpose for reading the text in the first place. If the reading covers particularly challenging concepts for school or work, this may impact which format you decide to choose. If you’re reading a lighter and easier novel for fun, the difference in comprehension may not matter. If anything, you may prefer the audiobook style that lets you enjoy reading during the semester while still accomplishing your other daily goals. It can seem impossible to keep up with reading during the semester if you need to carve out time in your schedule to sit and focus on nothing but the physical book in your hand. Additionally, audiobooks can be cheaper than buying new books from a bookstore while also avoiding the hassle of having to wait for a book to come in or facing the possibility that the store you visit doesn’t have what you are looking for. With audiobooks, you can begin reading them immediately, with access to nearly any text you could want.
Whichever format you choose, you are still reading the material. It is ableist to deny that an audiobook counts as reading. Disability drives innovation—finding new and creative ways to accommodate disabilities has been beneficial to the entire population. Looking at the history of books, audio technology allowed a world of people to enjoy something that was initially invented to help a smaller population have the same opportunities to engage with literature. So, yes—audiobooks do count as reading. This is not something that can be argued. What can be debated is which reading format will best suit your needs and give you your desired outcome, which depends entirely on your purpose for reading.