Not cheating! Why elitists are wrong about the value of audio books

Heard any good books lately? A thriller, a memoir, a cli-fi sci-fi? Many of us do it, download the audio story rather than reading its physical counterpart. But why? What’s the appeal of heard over read? And how does the preference influence our brains?

As a marginal scribbler, I favour the tangible book. Most of my library teems with circled quotes, offshoot ideas, potential crossword fodder. Yet others in the family – from the sunrise dog-walker to the bus-hopping commuter – vouch for the uttered yarn. Nor are they alone.

Audiobooks are on the rise. Auditing firm Deloitte predicts the global market to expand by a quarter in the coming year, generating more than $4.5 billion. Quite the leap from Mary and her little lamb, the initial words Thomas Edison entrusted to his phonograph in 1878.

Play it forward, and here we are, standing in an audio Alexandria. Michelle Obama can read you her Becoming (Viking Press, 2018), just as Simon Callow will dazzle with Roald Dahl’s The Twits (Jonathan Cape, 1980) – the author’s voice as rich as the actor’s craft. But is either the equal of reading?

Former first lady Michelle Obama (left) who read her own audio version, talks to actor Sarah Jessica Parker about “Becoming: An Intimate Conversation with Michelle Obama”.Credit:AP

Researchers say no, or not quite. Daniel Willingham, Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, reports how words arrayed on the page are vital for formative readers to comprehend narrative, absorbing spatial cues to reinforce story and boost memory.

A student’s spelling will likewise improve by viewing words, seeing the silent g tucked into foreign, say. Compare this to a listener’s gains, absorbing elements of tone and pronunciation in the audio vein, where foreign is spoken, perhaps with a tinge of sark to colour its meaning further.

Discretion is another asset, a listener’s book not displayed for other commuters to judge. Imagine I’m into rural romances (and who doesn’t love a jackeroo-meets-jillaroo liaison?) then my bent remains unseen when enjoyed as an audio experience. Of course, an e-reader has a similar advantage, just minus the heavy breathing.

Then there’s the dog-walker. The jogger. The driver. The gardener. Try reading a paperback when you’re washing dishes. Or lying in the dark with your eyes closed. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but there’s no problem Hoovering with a narrative in full cry. Audiobooks cater to multitasking, your downtime enlivened by whodunits or how-tos.

For all that, a purist garrison treats the heard book as cheating, or a reversion to childhood, that pre-literate joy of a parent’s recital. Hearing is passive, they say, versus the discipline of reading. To make a printed book work, you need to interpret the symbols and self-generate the voices. Full-steam engagement compared to the audio realm, where a story unfolds with or without you.

Hearing is passive, they say, versus the discipline of reading. To make a printed book work, you need to interpret the symbols…

This view has an elitist whiff, mixed with ableist too, as if oral culture is somehow less sophisticated. Such a bias was observed by a (tactile) book I read this week, an odyssey into Amazonia, and other zones of endangered languages.

I Saw The Dog (Profile, 2021) by Alexandria Aikhenvald, a Distinguished Professor at James Cook Uni, ferries you up the Sepik, the Rio Negro, leading you to tribes with no written tradition. Nonetheless the tongues of the Iatmul people of Papua, the Tariana of Brazil, abound in wisdom, wit and lore, just none of it inscribed.

“Written language,” writes Aikenvald, “has acquired an aura of superiority and ultimate prestige – so much so that, to some, a language without a writing system is not a language at all.” Fact is I read this quote with my eyes. Yet the words still count however, still resonate, still stick, no matter how I came to hear it.

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