Audiobooks: A Form of Reading, Or Something Different?

Over the past decade, the popularity of the audiobook has experienced explosive growth. With the transition from CD audiobooks to a fully digital platform, the demand has only increased. 

In 2017, Forbes reported that audiobooks sales were up 20% across the publishing industry, compared to print books sales, which only grew by 1.5%. Publishers Weekly released a report stating that in 2019, audiobook production was up 18%, and HarperCollins stated that 25% of their digital revenue came from audiobooks alone.

As audiobooks (as well as podcasts, and other forms of audio storytelling) have gained a great foothold in the cultural consciousness, people can not help but ask the question: Does it still count as reading?

Popular reading platform GoodReads posted a blog asking their users to chime in, and a thread of over 400 messages, excluding comments and replies, argues this point, with readers going back and forth. Psychology Today released an article claiming audiobooks do not count as reading because they simply are not equivalent.

Students and faculty at Point Loma Nazarene University are no different; many listen to audiobooks for various reasons and there is no easy answer to come by. How, exactly, can we define what an audiobook does?

Rachel Grace Heckle, fourth-year literature English education student, uses audiobooks as a way to better understand her class readings. 

“I think my reading comprehension goes way up… I’m reading ‘Wuthering Heights’ with an audiobook because reading it physically and listening to the audiobook is the best method for me,” Heckle said.

Heckle finds that as a commuter, audiobooks are a way to fill the time. 

“I think it’s way more accessible. When I’m cleaning, or when I’m driving, I’m able to just pop on an audiobook. It’s more compatible with my schedule as a student,” Heckle said.

The Point reached out to the Educational Access Center (EAC) for comment on accessibility, but they declined to be interviewed. In their email response, they said, “Audiobooks are a needed accommodation for some students registered with the EAC and all accommodation approvals are made through individual assessment by our staff.”

Heckle firmly believes that despite the audio format, “you’re still embracing an art form. So when it comes to an audiobook you’re still reading… you’re still getting the same experience and the same story.” 

Rick Moncauskas, professor of media communication and director of PLNU’s television and radio studios, explained how audiobooks are a subgenre of audio productions.

“I remember playing ‘Star Wars’ in the car for my sons, and it was an audio production, not a book. It was a dramatization of the script… an audiobook is just a reading of a book,” Moncauskas said. “One of the things I tell my audio production students is that audio is performance.”

Moncauskas said audiobooks exist on a spectrum between a simple reading of a book and a more involved production with music, sound effects and multiple voice actors.

“For some audiobooks, there’s going to be almost no production value,” Moncauskas said. “And there for some there will be a lot, and there’s going to be a lot of space in the middle. Is an audiobook reading a book? Depends a little bit on how it’s produced.”

Full-scale productions might be deviating from the way a print book is read, while a stripped-down reading adheres more to the traditional mode of reading. Additionally, Moncauskas made the point that all non-dialogue audio does not need to be processed consciously. 

“Sound can influence you, and your emotions, without your assent or knowledge. In that sense audio books can be very different from printed books,” Moncauskas said.

Schuyler Eastin, adjunct professor of literature, finds that readers can both lose and gain something by reading print books or by listening to audiobooks.

“Audiobooks give us an opportunity to encounter what we read in a different way.  Both print books and audiobooks are valuable, it just depends on what you want to get out of it,” Eastin said.

Eastin, as a literary scholar, said that if someone wanted to read a book for literary criticism or to study a book, the print book is best. Interacting with the text in an audio format makes it difficult to draw the specific evidence needed to write a review, write a scholarly paper, or have an informed discussion with textual examples.

Eastin said audiobooks seem to play into the oral tradition of literature, where early stories in humanity’s history were shared out loud long before they were ever written down. 

“Technology, in a weird way, is allowing us to revisit something we thought we have left behind. In fact, technology has allowed us to leave it behind in the first place,” Eastin said. With the invention of cell phones, Eastin said, people can listen to whatever book they want, pretty much whenever.

“I’d be fascinated if people ever got together to listen to audiobooks together,” Eastin said. “Because the experience in an oral tradition, like ‘Beowulf’ or ‘The Iliad,’ was a very communal experience. Now, we listen to things orally but mostly in isolation.”

In the wake of COVID-19, it will be interesting to see how people interact with audiobooks and the community, and how the tradition of consuming stories will continue. Depending on who you ask, you might get different opinions about audiobooks, but it’s clear that consuming stories in all formats is here to stay.