Audiobooks, Reading and How to Talk About Books

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Not the sort of books you can listen to
Not the sort of books you can listen to

If there’s one thing most readers love as much as reading, it’s talking about the books we read. Whether it’s presenting theories on Jon Snow’s parentage or discussing which is our favourite Pratchett book, we all do it. But that’s become a little tricky linguistically.

Reading With Your Ears

For over a year now, I’ve dabbled in the Sword and Laser reading group on Goodreads. It’s a great place to find out about interesting books and to discuss them with other readers. It’s made me aware of a trend I’d never noticed before – referring to listening to audiobooks as ‘reading’.

When people want to discuss the experience of taking in a particular book, whether by reading, listening or a combination of the two, it’s become common to use ‘reading’ to refer to the experience in general. We don’t have another word that covers it, and that’s become the default. But it can occasionally be confusing, as it turns out that someone has been ‘reading’ a book without ever looking at a single line on a page or screen.

Does it Matter?

This came up in a discussion with fellow speculative fiction author Rita de Heer about one of my previous posts. As Rita pointed out, the way we take in stories changes the experience. An audiobook gives you around 150-160 words per minute, while an average silent reader will take in and understand 250-300 words. Proof reading might take you to 200 wpm, depending on the quality of the work, but we go a lot faster when reading novels.

Then there’s the fact that an audiobook adds another person to your experience of the story. The quality of narration can add to or detract from the experience. I love listening to James Marsters reading the Dresden Files books (review of one coming up next week), but there’s no denying that I’d imagine Harry Dresden differently without that voice.

So Is It Reading?

We need a word to refer to taking in stories whatever the format, as it’s still the same story and we want to discuss it with ease. Until we come up with something else, ‘reading’ is going to have to do. But if we want to appreciate the subtleties of how reading works and what it means, we need to remember that there’s a difference between reading and, well, reading.

Do you refer to audiobooks as ‘reading’? Do you have another word to cover all ways of experiencing stories? Leave a comment, share your thoughts.

23 thoughts on “Audiobooks, Reading and How to Talk About Books”

  1. I think I do get more detail from Audiobooks because I can’t skip along. It means sometimes I’ll kind of hold off on listening to a particularly awkward scene because I will have to go through every detail. Also a good reading ( the best I’ve noticed in my brief dalliance with Audible so far has been Kate English reading The Paladin Of Souls which is a great combination of reader and story ) makes a huge difference, although conversely a bad reading totally destroys it – I have heard a few which sound as though they are being read by some kind of sophisticated text-to-speech system which can pronounce the words but offer not context or inflection, others that are read by what is clearly an unsophisticated text-to-speech program. At least when I read a book myself I know what the quality will be like.

    That said, it’s easy to tune-out from audio and suddenly find you have missed a couple of minutes- I like the way the Audible app gives you a “back 30 seconds” option- that is exactly what I need from time to time when I have got lost in my own thoughts or too busy with whatever it was I’m actually supposed to be doing.

    1. It took me months to notice that ‘back 30 seconds’ button even existed, but though it might seem like a small detail I’m actually really impressed with it as the sort of thing that shows the designers have thought about the user experience. Brings out my inner business process nerd.

      1. I’ve also found, when using the Audible app on my phone, that if a notification noise interrupts the book, it goes back slightly (maybe 10 seconds) before re-starting. I think that’s also a nice touch.

  2. I sometimes use audiobooks, and call it listening, not reading. Maybe it’s an age thing.

    1. I suspect it’s more about who you talk with, and how. Having lots of conversations in which people have taken in the same story different ways leads to a need for a word to cover them all.

  3. I’ve encountered the word “audit” being used to cover ALL ways of experiencing a story (or work of nonfiction, for that matter).

    I don’t care for audiobooks; I don’t like having another person’s voice intrude on the story, and as you said, the quality of the narration (and any sound effects/music included on the audiobook) can make a big difference.

    1. Cool that someone’s come up with another term. ‘Audit’ has too many other associations for me to readily start using it (I used to do administrative auditing as part of a previous job), but if it catches on then maybe it’ll redeem the word for me.

  4. Audiobooks really slow me down and force me to listen to every word. I find it’s a completely different experience from reading, where I sometimes find myself skimming the boring parts. 😉

  5. Oooh, I struggle with this. You’re right; people do tend to refer to the whole experience as ‘reading’ even though with audiobooks we’re really listening. Usually if I manage to catch myself, I change it to ‘going through’ or something just to be less wrong, but I often don’t even think about it.

    1. ‘Going through’ is definitely more accurate, and more succinct than any alternative I’ve come up with. A little cumbersome and vague, but it’s clearer and only one extra word… The more I think about it, the more that looks like my favourite alternative so far.

  6. I’ve really struggled with this, especially because I often use both for a given book, switching between audio in the car and Kindle when I’m able to read (Amazon’s Whispersync for Voice is great for this). It feels wrong to say that I’ve read a book that I’ve listened to, but if I say I listened to a book, then I feel the need to explain/qualify it.

    It’s not really true to say that I’m listening to my current book, or that I’m reading it, because I’m doing both. Saying “This book that I’m reading and listening to” is clunky. I might just ignore my inner pedant and use “reading” to refer to audio books as well as e/print books.

    1. I haven’t tried using whispersync between audio and reading yet. How accurately does it land you in the right place as you switch between them?

      That silencing of the inner pedant seems to be where the consensus is heading on this, at least until we come up with another word. It also makes me realise that we lack terms to distinguish between reading on paper and on electronic formats, which while much closer as experiences do have differences. I suppose the language just needs time to evolve.

      1. I’ve found Whispersync for Voice to be surprisingly accurate. I usually try to finish at the end of a chapter, which might help, but I don’t think I’ve ever had to adjust position after it’s synchronised.

  7. I’m an audiophile. Being able to “read” while doing otherthings (like driving, excising, and house work) has really upped my book consumption. I listened to 137 books last year, where as I read 20 or so. The narrator is key. A bad narrator, or even a bad recording, can kill a book for me. I agree 100% Marsters IS Harry Dresden! I love that mans voice. I had to stop listening and switch to the written book of Ghost Story b/c Marsters didn’t narrate it. It was so out of sync from what I’d grown to expect, I couldn’t get into the story.

    On another note, Audio can also make writing errors stand out. When an author repeats words or phrases, or the sentences are “sticky.” It’s not something that your eye can gloss over. Hearing the written word spoken really emphasizes the writing. I’ve learned tons by listening.

    1. That point about words and phrases standing out is really interesting – the way a different format can draw attention to a book’s flaws, or even its poetry, in a way reading doesn’t.

      And like you I do a lot listening while doing other tasks, though it’s more often podcasts than books. I love the way modern technology has opened up that possibility.

    2. Gina, I heard yesterday that they’re recording a new version of Ghost Story, this time with Marsters. So if you want to hear him do the whole series, it sounds like you’ll now have a chance.

  8. I drive a lot so I burn through audiobooks. The narrator can make a huge difference on some books, but others are strong enough stories to pull me in regardless.

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