Long before most of us were able to read, our families and teachers were reading stories to us. Though many of us now enjoy listening to audiobooks on our commute or while we’re folding laundry, we experience a sneaking suspicion that hearing stories is just a lazier version of reading. So let’s settle the gnawing question: Do audiobooks count as reading? We think so! And in some cases, listening to audiobooks might even be better than reading the written word. Read on to learn why we think listening to audiobooks definitely counts as reading.
1. Whether you’re visually reading or listening, you’re still experiencing a story.
Like those long-ago bedtime stories, books in any form tell a story. Whether you’re curled up with a new David Baldacci paperback or walking the dog while listening to the latest Nora Roberts release, you’re consuming a narrative. In fact, the oral tradition of storytelling predates the written word by thousands of years and it wasn’t until the 17th century that reading society in Europe moved towards being silent.
When we listen to books, we’re still terrified when the heroine is being chased by a killer. We’re still imagining it. We’re still wondering what happens next. The excitement of the tale, the emotions of the characters, the lessons learned, and the book’s personal meaning remain whether it’s coming through your ears or your eyes. Even more, getting sucked into an engrossing audiobook may sustain you through cleaning or challenging workouts, benefiting other areas of your life.
2. Your brain understands audiobooks just as well as print books.
Though research on visual versus auditory comprehension is limited and often mixed, a 2016 study showed that people who listened to Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken understood and remembered the novel just as well as those who read it. Earlier studies showed that comprehension through reading and listening were correlated and that people could summarize what they’d heard just as well as what they’d read. In the words of University of Virginia psychology professor Dan Willingham, author of Raising Kids Who Read: “Once you are good at decoding letters into sound, which most of us are by the time we’re in fifth or sixth grade, the comprehension is the same whether it's spoken or written.”
A Forbes article notes that the tendency to multitask while listening to audiobooks may affect overall understanding. Or, as TIME suggests, a person new to audiobooks may initially struggle with absorbing this new form of information, but comprehension may improve as they adjust to the auditory format. For Willingham, reading comprehension is comparable with both audiobooks and print books: “If you’re reading or listening for leisure — not for work or study — the differences between audiobooks and print books are probably ‘small potatoes.’”
3. Some books are easier to understand on audio.
Willingham also points out that listening to a book can provide additional clues about what’s happening through prosody, or “the musicality of words,” which includes a speaker’s pitch, rhythm, and pacing. In a post on his website, Willingham gives the example of a simple sentence like ‘I really enjoy your blog.’ “[It] can either be a sincere compliment or a sarcastic put-down,” he writes. “Both look identical on the page, and prosody would communicate the difference in spoken language.”
Shakespeare, for example, is often easier to understand when we hear the tones and inflections of his famous plays through a narrator’s delivery. Similarly, hearing an unfamiliar word said aloud can make the meaning clearer to a listener — and what bookworm doesn’t like to expand their vocabulary?
4. Some books are simply more enjoyable on audio.
In addition to certain books being easier to understand through audio, sometimes it’s just more delightful to hear a book aloud because of the particular emphasis, humor, or joy that a narrator brings to the story. The recent crop of celebrity-read classics is proof of this, not to mention the actors, comedians, and authors who narrate their own books. Who doesn’t want to hear Amy Poehler read her own hilarious and inspiring audiobook, Yes Please, or Reese Witherspoon narrating Go Set a Watchman? And if the purpose of reading is to spread the joy of shared stories, then we like to believe that any format that amplifies that joy counts as reading.
5. Listening to books makes reading more accessible.
With healthy eyes and no restrictions on reading, we often take for granted the ability to read words on a page. For those who are blind, visually impaired, or simply don’t have the ability to read, audiobooks are a wonderful alternative that make books universally accessible. Author James Tate Hill shares a personal anecdote that speaks to the profound impact of the listening format. Hill became legally blind as a teenager, and audiobooks have been profoundly meaningful to him as a reader, student, and writer. When pondering his experience of hearing stories and wondering if audiobooks count as reading, he writes: “Sooner or later, the voice in my ears ceases to be a voice. It becomes the words, the words become sentences, and the sentences become the story. At some point, the voice in my ears merges with my own voice the way the words on a page once became my own inner voice when I still read print.”