Audiobooks Make Me Feel Like I’m Cheating

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

audiobooks, books, content, iphoneLet’s get this out of the way: I love audiobooks. Since reluctantly trying them earlier this year, I have found I cannot get enough of them. I listen to them all the time. They have become part of my daily routine.

But as I listen to more and more audiobooks—sometimes as many as two a week—I find myself feeling a bit shameful. When someone mentions a book and I offer that I recently read it, I rarely mention that I actually listened to it. I feel like I’m hiding a big secret.

In my view, despite the fact that the content is identical, audiobooks are not the same thing as books.

When I read a book, it’s the only thing I am doing in that moment. I’m not looking at my computer, I’m not texting, I’m not walking anywhere—I’m just reading.

When I listen to an audiobook, however, I am never just listening to it. I am always doing something else, be it taking the train, walking somewhere or exercising.

In this way, listening to an audiobook—at least how I listen to it—becomes a more passive act than reading a book. I’m trying to put all my attention on the audiobook, but because I am doing something else while listening to it, there’s no way I can ever put in 100 percent.

At its most basic, this is a content vs. container argument. What’s more important? The content (the words that compose the book) or the container (the physical object that is a “book,” or the audio files on my iPhone)? But it is also a reading vs. listening argument. While the content remains the same, I’m absorbing it in different ways, using different means to process the information.

Whether I’d read Rich Cohen’s new book (I didn’t) or listened to it (I did), I’d still have taken in the same content.

Maybe, then, it’s also an argument over priority. What is my intention with the audiobook? Is it to take in the content, or is it to help pass the time while I do something else?

For me, when it comes to audiobooks, despite how strongly I fall into the former camp, I also fall into the latter a bit too much for my liking. Again, I never listen to an audiobook unless I’m doing something else (and I doubt I’m in the minority on that one). I listen to it to make my commute go by faster, to make my workout less boring.

Reading a physical book (or ebook), on the other hand, is a much more intention-based act. That’s the only thing I’m doing in that moment (hopefully). I’m not reading for any other purpose than I want to.

I love audiobooks. I’m not going to abandon them anytime soon. But, for me, they possess an undeniable hollowness that I cannot escape.

They may seem like books. They may have the same information as books. But I cannot say that I actually read them. And for that reason, to me, they’ll always be separate from books.


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20 thoughts on “Audiobooks Make Me Feel Like I’m Cheating

  1. Michael W. Perry

    You are right. They’re not the same, but they are similar. I rarely listen to non-fiction, particularly history, as an audiobook. As you note, listening doesn’t focus my attention like reading. Despite the existence of jump-back buttons in audiobook players, it’s not as easy to relisten to something I didn’t quite get as it is to reread it. When retention matters, I read.

    That said, I love audiobooks for fiction, particularly classic fiction from the wonderful volunteers at Librivox. But for audiobooks, I don’t think I’d have discovered just what a good writer Edgar Rice Burroughs was. I’d have written him off as a terribly out-dated scifi writer. The guy is a master storyteller.

    Reply
    1. Daniel BerkowitzDaniel Berkowitz Post author

      Michael, interesting to hear your perspective. I’ve never listened to a novel. In fact, I exclusively do memoirs, bios and history on audio. I hear what you’re saying about retaining. I guess I feel like I wouldn’t end up retaining half those facts anyway even if I read the words rather than listened to them.

      I also feel like I wouldn’t get immersed into the world of the fictional story through audio the same way I would through reading. With nonfiction, I don’t have that need to be transported. But maybe it’s worth giving it a shot.

      Reply
      1. Michael W. Perry

        The depth of content matters. As you point out, we typically listen to audiobooks when we’re doing something else, so they don’t get our undivided attention. It’s also true that, when we don’t quite grasp something, a printed book makes it easy to reread. Audiobook readers may have that option, but in most cases it isn’t that easy to jump back. I end up just brushing off my lack of understanding and going on.

        For me, that depth of content typically appears in the distinction between fiction, where my emphasis is on lighter material, and non-fiction where my taste is more serious. I’m currently reading Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. It’s a marvelous book, but the depth means I regularly need to look back and reread a passage to understand it well. I’d feeling guilty breezing through a book that serious as an audiobook.

        But fiction can have a similar depth. I never got “into” the Harry Potter series, but as a writer I did feel I had to read and attempt to understand why it was so popular, particularly with teens and young adults. I squared my lack of interest in the story with my interest in how it was written by listening to most of that seeming endless series of long volumes on audiobooks. That matters. Unlike Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which I’ve not only read repeated and written a book about (Untangling Tolkien), I’m totally clueless about how closely the movies follow the book—nor do I care. My grasp of Harry Potter is quite superficial and I’m fine with that. It’d take endless hours to master the details on her fantasy world.

        I did confirm with Harry Potter one writing technique I’ve seen in virtually every other popular book written for children and teens. If you want to get them involved, come up with a way to get adults, particularly parents, out of the way. They absolutely love that. Rowling does that with a boarding school. C. S. Lewis does it with a wardrobe that’s a passage into Narnia. You find the same pattern in the long-ago Edith Nesbit, where a magic amulet takes kids to far distant time periods.

        And even when the tale isn’t set in a fantasy world, the parents can be remarkably lax. I read Tom Swift Jr. tales as a kid and the boy’s typical interaction with his father, owner of a huge aircraft company, goes something like this.

        JR: Dad, can I borrow the plane this weekend? I’d like to fly down to the jungles of the Amazon and look around.
        SR: You mean the one that’s the size of a 747, is nuclear-powered, and can take off and land vertically?
        JR: Yes, that one.
        SR: Sure, here are the keys. Just be sure you send a message to your mom from time to time, so she doesn’t worry.

        Yes, not realistic at all, but for a 10-year-old boy, that’s an ideal world. I sometimes wonder if our present-day “helicopter parenting” is making kids more interested than ever in that or if it is making them to fearful to even read about it. Probably both. Harry Potter sends them away from parents but shelters them inside a boarding school—no Amazon jungles.

        Those are the broader patterns that an audiobook listener can pick while listening on the go. In fact, the very inattention to detail that characterizes listening over reading can make seeing the broader picture easier.

        –Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books, Auburn, AL

        Reply
  2. Davis

    I agree with your analysis. So in the end, when talking to people about the content we received, should we say that we “read” such and such book or that we “listened” to it? And does it matter in those kind of conversations?

    FWIW, I enjoy road trips so much more these days because I can listen carefully to the next audiobook in my library.

    Reply
    1. Daniel BerkowitzDaniel Berkowitz Post author

      Thanks, Davis. For me, I think I have to say I listened to it rather than read it. That’s the thing: I don’t think it ultimately matters, but it sure feels like it does…

      Reply
    1. Daniel BerkowitzDaniel Berkowitz Post author

      Hi Bethany, I don’t appreciate the implication. Given the explosive growth of the medium, I doubt we’re the only two people who’ve had these thoughts.

      Reply
  3. Kevin

    I rarely have the time to sit down and read a whole book, but I always have time to listen to an audiobook. For this reason alone I feel that audiobooks are my indispensable way of consuming books. It particularly pairs well with exercising and commuting, where you want to shut out the outside world, and focusing on the words as they are being narrated from an audiobook is a great way to do this.

    Reply
  4. Glenn McCreedy

    Good insights into the ways we engage with books as content. It’s interesting to see the choices you list as to usage in time, place, and purpose. What is apparent in your piece is that we make choices as to those conditions which structure our experience of a particular book whether it is an audiobook, print, or ebook. One could lie down on the sofa, put on the headphones and totally immerse oneself in the audio experience of a book. This raises other questions as to what that experience could be had depending on the production elements applied by the author/publisher, in addition to, or beyond, the standard voice-over and intro/bridge/closing music. I read recently an article where it was suggested that simple VR could be one of these elements.

    But underneath this is the certain convenience of an audiobook and not having to direct your eyes constantly to the page, thereby allowing the simultaneous activities you describe. That convenience alone may be the most powerful driver in the increased usage of audiobooks. I empathize with your “guilt” over your use of an audiobook over a print book. I think, however, if we were to ask authors, they would say, “I’m just happy you enjoyed my book.”

    Reply
    1. Clare Murphy

      I also love audiobooks. I am most often listening while doing something else. (! Housework !) But I also will put the self-timer on and crash out in evenings, knowing that I can rewind if I do fall asleep. 😉 I do listen to both fiction and non-fiction. I work at a computer all day, and simply listening gives my eyes a break, and visual imagination can soar.

      The added element of a great narrator is just wonderful. A good narrator (& author) can bring to life a topic which I might not have had enough initial interest to pick up and dedicate time to visually read a whole book on that topic. Thus audiobooks can lower the access barriers to the content, and I can certainly be enlightened, if not become an actual expert.

      I love audiobooks.

      – A life-long reader.

      Reply
  5. Joel Emmett

    There’s an important difference. Audiobooks could include audio excerpts from other media — including quotes, movie clips, background music, sound effects, and other sounds to enhance the experience.

    I hope that Digital Book World will specifically address copyright issues in regards to using extra audio sometime soon.

    Reply
  6. Georgia Woods

    Great article, Daniel, and maybe I’m one of a small minority. Not all the time, but many times I listen to books as if they were music. I generally buy audio versions of my favorite reads, and then I can listen to them as fits my mood while I do housework or cook or float in the pool at the end of a long day because I can close my eyes, focus on the voice, and just enjoy the story. I occasionally listen to a book as a first “read,” but rereads of old favorites is my most preferred way to enjoy audiobooks, and especially if the narration is a total winner. For me, the flow of words is sometimes more appropriate to my mood and my task than the flow of music, and I think there are probably quite a few people out there like me who are slowly discovering the joy of filling their ears with words versus music.

    Reply
  7. Pat

    I love audio books for some purposes, and always fiction. I like them for long road trips and yes, when I am working on a needlework project. How much I get absorbed in the story depends greatly on the skill of the reader. Some are better than others. So while I have a house full of books and a well-used library card, I believe audio books have a place in the scheme of things. They also allow persons with reading difficulties to enjoy some of the world’s greatest literature.In MY book, anything that promotes enjoyment of the written word is a definite plus.

    Reply
  8. Michael W. Perry

    Quote: “When someone mentions a book and I offer that I recently read it, I rarely mention that I actually listened to it. I feel like I’m hiding a big secret.”

    I understand what you mean. Not having quite the motivation of Harry Potter fans, I listened to rather than read several in the series. I still don’t know how to refer to what I did. They’re books, so people expect me to have read them. But explaining that I listened instead seems a bit pedantic.

    Our language hasn’t caught up with our behavior. If I walk to a store rather than drive there, I can still say “I went shopping.” But I can’t come up with a reasonable way that describes either reading or listening to a book. “Consuming” would do the job, but that confuses reading with eating and even makes an obsession of it.

    I’m not sure adding a lot of sound effects to an audiobook would make it better. The entire point of reading is so we use our imagination. Before the Lord of Rings movies came out, I told friends who’d not read the book that they really should read it before seeing the movies, that otherwise their reading would be forever shaped by the movie.

    I’m not sure meddling with our imagination while reading is a good idea. We can see the characters in a wood. Adding chirping birds to the audio would just distract. That said, Librivox volunteers, bless their generous hearts, are creating versions of classic tales in which different readers play different parts. That can work well enough, particularly if the readers sound like the character might. A recent version of Anne of Green Gables featured someone who struck me as sounding just like the literary Anne might have sounded. You can find it here:

    https://librivox.org/anne-of-green-gables-dramatic-reading-by-lucy-maud-montgomery/

    If you’ve got kids and have a driving vacation planned for this summer, you might have them listen to it to beat the boredom. It’s a fascinating tale. Notice too the innocence of that era in comparison to our own twisted and vile times.

    –Michael W. Perry, co-author of Lily’s Ride

    Reply
  9. Finn

    Arriving a little late to this article, but completely agree with your summary Daniel. For me, it’s the passive vs active. And a reason as to why I feel audiobook subscription services hold far more appeal than eBook subscription services.

    Reply
  10. David Niall Wilson

    Not sure I really agree. Pretty sure most people (I know I do) develop reading habits when reading a book themselves, and it’s just as easy to skim over a section that is slightly less interesting, or to forget quite where you were, as it is to drift off while listening to an audiobook. It sounds to me more as if whatever it is you are doing WHILE listening to the audiobook is what makes it seem like cheating. I listen while driving, and while running… neither of those things remove me from the book, or the performance (though a bad narrator can).

    I’ve listened to very literally tens of thousands of hours of audiobooks. At Crossroad Press I’ve published nearly 500 of them. I think what I’m trying to say is, while there are – of course – differences between physically picking up a book and reading it, and hearing it performed by a professional narrator, the quality experience for me leans toward the audio. I believe the bigger difference is in readers / listeners, and not in the formats of the books, which contain exactly the same words….

    Reply
  11. Angela Beasley

    hmmmm…. I’ve never been a big book reader because I’ve never been able to commit to sitting or laying around for more than 15 minutes unless I am sleeping. Recently, I began working for a company that is really much to far from my house. My drive is 1 hour each way without traffic and typically winds up being 3 hours a day of travel. Needless to say, It really sucks. So, I started listening to audio books. I am now going through at least two books a week and have listened to books I would have never read. My drive is straight highway so there aren’t many distractions and i put my phone on “do not disturb” so that it doesn’t interrupt the process. I really don’t see much difference.

    When you are reading, and when I have read books in the past, I would also stop every few minutes and go to something else. Holding a book in my hand never stopped me from doing that. I’m just not a sitter (person who is able to sit for extended period of time without being annoyed) . With audiobooks I will lay in bed and start my audiobook up when I’m having trouble sleeping (every night) and fall to sleep listening to them, so i also get that time in. I would never do that with a physical book.

    We all have our own preferences, levels of discipline, etc. I’ve often wondered if i would get more out of the actual reading versus listening to a book, but I would have to say that I probably wouldn’t because realistically, If I had to actually read it, it would have to join the pile of my other half read (unfinished) books that don’t come in audio format. And if ao feel like I haven’t completely absorbed the content of my audiobook, I just listen to it again.

    Reply
  12. Sharon Bakar

    Agree with you. I do buy audiobooks of the literary fiction I enjoy most but listen alongside reading. I find this keeps me focused on the text as otherwise I’m easily distracted. Some voices add significantly to the book. I don’t think I could have got through Paul Beatty’s The Sellout without the audio.

    I enjoy non-fiction and especially memoir while I’m walking in the mornings. if I can’t give listening my full concentration then i listen to podcast instead.

    Reply

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