Is Listening, Reading?

[originally published by NOVA Star, October 2021. Rights belong to author.]

“It’s just not the same!” She said, her arms folded tight across her chest, her head turned away in disapproval. “Our students cannot become better readers if they don’t physically read the text.”

This was typical of Ms. Jones, a high school English teacher and colleague of mine for many years at our public high school. She was a brilliant and learned individual, but a staunch critic of audiobooks. If she assigned it, you had to read it. No exceptions. No shortcuts. After all, she protested, listening to someone read the words to you exhibits laziness, apathy.

I am constantly reading. Every morning, I read The Washington Post and check a few local periodicals. During the school day, I read and critique my students’ papers. In the evening, I toil and tinker with my own manuscripts and blog posts. In my free time, I’ll consume between 70 and 80 novels in a typical year. Half of them are audiobooks. And contrary to what my old colleague, Ms. Jones, might think, I can recall details from books I have listened to just as easily as books where I have turned the page. It is my belief that audiobooks are an indispensable tool for struggling readers, advanced readers, and everyone in between.

Two years ago, I had a student—let’s call her K—who spoke English as a second language. She was quite fluent in English, though when it came time to read Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, she slammed it down in defeat.

“I don’t know what they’re saying,” she said. “But it’s not English.”

Anyone who has ever read Zora Neale Hurston or William Faulkner or James Joyce knows that dialect is tricky. Painful even. We can digest the narrative at 200-words-a-minute, but we suffer intense indigestion each time we see those quotation marks.

But K, the determined student she was, found a free audiobook on YouTube, narrated by Ruby Dee. During class, while her peers were debating what Tea Cake and Janie were really saying, K listened to Ruby Dee decipher the pages for her, as her fingers slid attentively across the printed words. By doing this, K comprehended the text, but also thought critically about how the dialogue furthered the plot and enhanced the characters. In our class discussions, she was the first to bring up key points from each chapter. Key points overlooked by her peers who only read the book.

Audiobooks also do what physical books cannot. They add inflection, tone, cadence—elements that readers don’t necessarily add themselves when reading silently. Think of it this way: a good public speaker doesn’t read their speech, they perform it. The same is true when one gets their hands on a good audiobook. An excellent example of this is Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, narrated by Jeremy Irons. The darkness and depth of Iron’s voice, the soft chuckles under his breath, all work to lift Humbert’s character off the page.

The argument against audiobooks is one of unfair comparison. Those that believe ‘it’s just not the same’ are comparing active reading to passive listening. In active reading, our bodies are stationary, our eyes locked with the ink on the page—perhaps a pen in our hand scribbling marginalia—and ideally, all other distractions are removed. When we listen, however, we tend to do it passively, while we take in other sensory details. We listen to music while we’re driving our chatty friend to the airport, running on the treadmill, gathering for a barbeque, or getting ready for work. The mind is involved with other tasks, while the music, as catchy as it might be, wafts in and out focus. In these latter situations, if one were to replace the music with an audiobook, those critics—the Ms. Jones’s of the world—would be right. Nothing would stick. Listening to an audiobook is only the same as reading if we actively listen. To do this, I recommend the following:

Remove other sensory distractions.

You are after all, reading. So sit in your comfortable chair, and close your eyes if you want. If you think you might nod off, do something that does not require mental work while you listen: wash the dishes, fold the laundry, go for a walk—any mindless task will do. I often squeeze in a chapter or two on my commute to work.

Pause and reflect.

Just like closing the book after each chapter and thinking about what you read, do the same with an audiobook. Hit the stop button every so often and use those reading skills you were taught in school. Summarize the chapter. Predict what will happen next. Compare the story to your own life. Talk to a friend about you’re listening to. If you can’t remember what you just heard, try removing outside distractions.

Adjust the playback.

Apps like Overdrive and Audible allow you to change the speed of playback without altering the pitch of the narrator’s voice. If the narration is too slow, you won’t pay attention. Too fast, you won’t absorb anything. Find the speed that keeps you stimulated, without hindering your comprehension. Generally, I find the playback speed of 1.6x to be just right. At this rate, I can finish a 10-hour audiobook in just over six hours of playback.

Find the right narrator.

Voice acting is a tricky business. When done poorly, we cash in our chips. When done well, however, the narrator holds us effortlessly, well into the evening. If you find yourself stuck in a good book with a poor narrator, try someone new. The older the book, the better the chances of finding multiple narrators. I have found Blackstone Audio to be the most consistent producer of great narration.

Pair listening with reading.

This is the most ideal situation. If you have a book that you are struggling to read, rent the audiobook version from your local library, and listen to it while you read the physical book. As mentioned before, this can be advantageous if the book has thick dialect, unfamiliar words, or if English is not your first language. This is a go-to strategy of mine for struggling readers.

A short list of my favorite audiobooks, in no particular order:

  1. The Bomber Mafia, Malcolm Gladwell
  2. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
  3. Everything is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer
  4. The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger
  5. The Storyteller, David Grohl
  6. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, John Berendt
  7. Caste, Isabel Wilkerson
  8. Ready Player One, Ernest Cline
  9. A Promised Land, Barack Obama
  10. Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

One thought on “Is Listening, Reading?

  1. BonnieReadsAndWrites says:

    Fantastic article. I completely agree with you that listening to an audiobook IS reading. I also agree about the narrators. Narration is an art form, and an audiobook narrator is basically putting on a play while speaking all the parts. Not everyone can do it. A bad narrator will ruin a book for me.

    Liked by 1 person

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