Audio books aren’t cheating

I watched an episode of Jennifer Byrne Presents this week on Bragging Rights. The panelists were discussing books that are famously difficult to read. Lawrence Mooney was adamant that listening to the audio book doesn’t count. He described a ‘dirty world’ of cheats listening to recorded books in their cars.

I was pleased that Jennifer Byrne disagreed with him. But Mooney’s opinion on audio books as lazy cheating is one I’ve heard before, and I disagree pretty strongly and get a bit fired up.

I’ve listened to audio books since I was ten. Through audio books I was introduced to writers like PG Wodehouse and Muriel Spark.

Most memorably, my sister and I listened to The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton. Usually, when we listened to story tapes, I would do other things at the same time like rearranging my horse-shoe collection or making a collage of all my favorite horses. But soon after starting The Outsiders my sister and I were lying on our bunk beds absolutely mesmerized by the story. Every half hour one of us would get up to turn over the cassette. We listened to the whole thing that afternoon. Then we made all our friends listen to it, and they loved it too. We  appreciated and engaged with The Outsiders even though we listened to it instead of reading it.

Reading to children is considered one of the most important things you can do for their development. Reading aloud to kids makes it more likely that they’ll be lovers of books. It seems a shame if at some point in our lives the enjoyment of aural words becomes considered lazy or weak.

People like listening to stories. Recently reading has become an almost entirely solitary pursuit but in the past, reading aloud was very common and books were written to be enjoyed aurally as well as on the page.  Authors still read aloud from their books at speaking events. We keep doing it because people enjoy it (and it fills up time on the program).

I listen to at least one audio book a week. The kind of books I listen to are different from the ones I read. I can’t listen to anything too complicated as an audio book because I find it harder to listen to audio books than to read. I think there’s a few reasons for this. My mind can wander and accidentally tune out the sound. It’s harder to go back and check a detail earlier in the book. I can’t control the pace of an audio book. It’s harder to stop and think if I need to.

So if someone listened to a big difficult classic on audio book, I wouldn’t accuse them of cheating, I would be very impressed.

I think some people believe that listening to an audio book is like watching the film of a book. I don’t think watching a film is cheating, but I agree that it’s not equivalent to reading the book. But listening to an audio book gives you one-to-one access to the words the book contains. You are experiencing the same words. The medium does make it a different experience, but one isn’t superior to the other.

Paper books are a technology that allows us to access words. The development of writing was an invention that allowed humans to do a hell of a lot of stuff. However, there are other ways to access words and I don’t see the point in ranking them. It seems ridiculous to have sensory hierarchy that says using your eyes to access words is intellectually superior to using your ears to access the same words. (Who knows where Braille would fit in?)

In The Outsiders Ponyboy reads Gone with the Wind aloud to Johnny, who can’t read well. They read Gone With the Wind, which maybe wasn’t the best choice, but anyway. Ponyboy also reads him a Robert Frost poem with the line ‘nothing gold can stay’. In one of the most memorable passages in the book, Johnny later tells Ponyboy to ‘Stay gold’. Johnny appreciated and engaged with the words and ideas even though he listened instead of reading them.

It’s not a dirty world of cheating, it’s fantastic.

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