With advancements in technology came advancements in practically every profession or activity. Writing became typing, newspapers became online magazines, and physical books became audiobooks.
The question concerning the validity of listening to an audiobook compared to reading a physical book has been posed fairly often. Audiobooks are often seen as cheating because they are “easier,” even though from the perspective of cognitive psychology, there are virtually no differences between listening to a book and reading it.
In a post on his blog, psychology professor Daniel Willingham explains a model of reading known as the “simple view.” The simple view claims there are two processes that contribute to reading: decoding and language processing. The decoding is translating the letters into words that hold significance. The language processing is figuring out the story being told.
Decoding and language processing are not vastly different for listening or reading comprehension. Listening does not require decoding, but according to Willingham, the process of decoding in reading becomes automatic after elementary school. Therefore, the argument that we cannot understand a story in audio format the same way we could in physical format falls flat.
People listening to an audiobook or reading a physical book have the same potential to retain and comprehend the words they consumed and do the same amount of mental work.
Some argue that audiobooks are cheating because they don’t require as much attention. This is untrue because when doing any activity, be it reading a book or listening to one, it can be easy for our minds to wander and get distracted. We still have to concentrate when listening to an audiobook.
With audiobooks, experiencing a story becomes more manageable and easier to fit into a busy schedule. One can listen while doing mindless tasks such as walking, cleaning and eating.
While there are certainly people who cannot focus on an audiobook the same way they could on a physical book, that is not a strong enough argument to deem audiobooks as inferior. It is simply a matter of preference over how we want to absorb a story. Where one person might fail to connect with an audiobook, another might thrive.
Audiobooks are not of lesser quality. They can even add more to the story than the physical copy. With an audiobook, a listener can deduce a lot of information based on the narrator’s tone of voice.
Reading physical books is encouraged because it can help develop close analytical and writing skills. Listening to audiobooks should be encouraged because it can help foster close listening skills, which are equally as important.
There is an idea that by listening to audiobooks, we’re experiencing the story in a way the author did not intend because we’re analyzing the speaker’s style of narration as opposed to the author’s writing style. However, this argument doesn’t hold up. When reading a physical book, we read in our own voice and can construe the story differently than intended by the author.
Whether listening to an audiobook or reading a physical book, the potential to see the story differently from what was planned by the author is the same.
To believe that listening to audiobooks is not a valid reading experience when compared to reading physical books is indicative of a very ableist ideology. For those who are blind or have visual problems, audiobooks are a way they can consume a story.
For those with physical or neurological disabilities who experience loss of motor skills, audiobooks can be an extremely useful tool because these people might be unable to physically hold a book or turn a page.
While reading and listening are different, listening to an audiobook and reading a physical book produce the same result. In either experience, a person comes away with a new story that hopefully made them feel a myriad of emotions.
Storytelling is incredibly important, and we should not view one method as superior. Otherwise, we risk people not being exposed to stories at all.