INTERNATIONAL GUEST POST – Listening Doesn’t Have to Mean Saying You’re Sorry


Siobhan, a reader from Ireland, did something a bit different and focused her guest post on the importance of audiobooks. 

Listening to books is one of the few forms of reading that people apologize for.

When friends say, apologetically, “Well, I didn’t read it, I just listened to it.”

When parents say, “I don’t mind them listening to one audiobook, but I prefer them to read more real books”.

Remind them of this :

  • Audiences of the 17th Century did not say that they were going to “see” a play. They literally said that they were going to “hear” a play.
  • Written texts, such as the Bible, have for centuries been pitched to the ear.
  • Ironically, when more people starting becoming literate, priests argued that reading was inferior to being read to because there was no interaction involved.

Audiobooks are somewhere between the stage-watching experience and the reading of text. Our brains haven’t massively changed from our cavepeople ancestors either so we’re still primed to latch on to a story being told us.

If anything, our ears are a more direct path to our brains that eyes > symbol to meaning filter > brain.

Audiences develop passionate attachments to the voices of audiobook readers even when they know nothing else about them.

The death of the author, the birth of the reader?

In 1977, Edison recorded “Mary had a little lamb”.

Almost immediately, witnesses were asking : Was it possible to record a novel “so that books can be procured in this form, and by being placed on the phonograph the entire story be told to the listening ear?”

(Recordings of full-length books had to wait until the 1930s.)

Friedrich Kittler prophesied the phonograph would be the “death of the author”, with the imagined author being replaced by the real author’s actual voice.

Is this fairly typical modern disparagement of audiobooks that different ?

“It [audiobooks] just doesn’t stick with me the way it does when I actually read something. I’ll stick with physical books until the day they actually cease to exist.”

Nearly one-in-five Americans now listen to audiobooks.

It’s one of the few forms of reading that is actually rising.

Twenty One years ago, Amazon’s Audible released the first portable audio player designed specifically for listening to audiobooks.

It cost $200 and could only hold about two hours of audio!

Far from digital killing the library, libraries around the world have reached one billion digital book checkouts.

  • Nearly half (48%) of frequent audiobook listeners are under 35.
  • Audiobook listeners are often also podcast listeners. Respondents who consumed both podcasts and audiobooks listened to twice as many audiobooks in the past 12 months as non-podcast consumers.
  • Avid readers are also listening. Audiobook listeners read or listened to an average of 15 books in the last year, and 77% of frequent listeners agreed or strongly agreed that “audiobooks help you finish more books.

The top three reasons why people enjoy listening to audiobooks are:

1) They can do other things while listening;

2) Audiobooks are portable and people can listen wherever they are;

3) They enjoy being read to.


Are audiobooks simply background wallpaper?

It’s true that many people can relate to this Reddit comment:

How often I clean my apartment is directly proportional to how much I’m enjoying my current audiobook.

Even when a task is done,  Reddit users want to keep listening so often do a little extra!

Still, Nielsen says that 56% of those they surveyed do nothing else while listening.

50% listen to relax before sleep, using audiobooks the way they do print books.

Charlotte’s Web

If you want to try out audiobooks for the first time, Charlotte’s Web wouldn’t be a bad choice.

You probably know the main story already, but having someone else read it can result in a slightly different experience of it.

There’s a rather touching story about the “Charlotte’s Web” audiobook.

In 1970, E.B White sat down in a studio to record the narration for Charlotte’s Web.

Author Michael Simms says:

“But every time, he broke down when he got to Charlotte’s death. And he would do it, and it would mess up. … He took 17 takes to get through Charlotte’s death without his voice cracking or beginning to cry.”

Makes me want to read it again. Now, where are my headphones?

Note: If you’re interested in the history of audiobooks, check out the excellent “The Untold Story of the Talking Book” by Matthew Rubery.

(Aliénor : I just wanted to add that we cannot ignore the ableism lurking behind dismissive comments about audiobooks, too, and how important they are to help people whose disabilities make reading paper books difficult.)



17 responses to “INTERNATIONAL GUEST POST – Listening Doesn’t Have to Mean Saying You’re Sorry

  1. I’m rarely listening Audiobooks although I’m always thinking to do it when I do my cleaning tasks, but listen to music or podcast instead.

    But, I listened to Audiobooks for a while last year because I wasn’t allowed to watch screens or read books because I had an ophthalmic shingle. So yeah, Audiobooks can be an amazing thing for people whose disabilities make reading paper books difficult. Listening to Audiobooks is /still/ reading.

    Thank you for this history of Audiobooks, Siobhan!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Extremely interesting article! I agree with Aliénor’s criticism to ableism remarks on audiobooks, both for blind people and people with learning problems such as dyslexia.

    I listen to some audiobooks as a way to practice languages, I prefer reading the text and listening simultaneously. There are several words’ pronunciation I learnt only after listening a book.

    Also, some people don’t have time and the only way to keep reading while they have to do things is thanks to audiobooks.

    Also, interesting comparison of books as a “stage-watching” experience. Some audiobooks have only one reader plain reader, some have a reader playing several characters with voice and some are almost those radio soap operas from the past.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Oh wow! I actually just drafted a post on audiobooks, and I 100% agree with everything Aliénor said! I hadn’t consciously thought of the ableism involved with audiobooks, but that is a valid point!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Good post. As a highly visual learner, I’m not a huge audiobook reader (much like ebooks, I make it through a few per year) and mostly prefer audio nonfiction or short stories. But I do feel it’s important, and we always have a family audiobook as well as the read-alouds we’re doing.

    What I think is overlooked is that the audiobook is a different format, just like a graphic novel. Where the artist makes a huge difference in a graphic novel, the narrator has a big impact on how an audiobook is experienced. It’s much more profound than, say, the difference between an ebook and a print book or paperback vs. hardcover. For this reason, I prefer when reviewers share what format they experienced a book in, and hopefully also comment about the narration if it was an audiobook.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This post speaks to me so much. I’ve only started listening to audiobooks 3 months ago and I will never do without them. I admittedly only started so I didn’t feel like I was “wasting reading time” while doing house chores, and now I listen to them whenever I can, while having breakfast, while cooking, you name it. The more I listen to them the more I am grateful I started, and every time a book (or a series) ends I tear up because I know I’m going to miss the experience, not just the book itself but the narrator and all the voices etc. Not to mention I get so distracted while reading lately, and listening helps me keep focused, cutting my overall reading time by A LOT. I will literally never understand people who shame other readers because of the means they choose to read, be it ebooks or audiobooks (not to mention, like you said, that it’s ableist af)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Great, thoughtful comments, thanks, everyone! A very good point on ableism.

    There’s a great piece in Lithub by James Tate Hill who discovered audio books after his optic nerves burned out at age 16…

    Then he became a bookworm!

    He says:

    “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.”


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