Resolving My Cheater Shame: Listening to Books Instead of Reading Them

audiobook listening

Today’s guest post is by author Kristen Tsetsi, who is a regular contributor to this site through the 5 On series.


When I told my husband, Ian, several weeks ago that I’d finished reading Andre Dubus III’s Townie, I corrected myself by hastily adding air quotes.

“I mean, finished listening to it,” I said, feeling like a poseur.

“Whatever,” he said. “Same thing.”

“You think?” The hope in my voice was embarrassing. I so wanted them to be the same, wanted to be authentically “well read.” Surely, though, the passive act of being read to by someone who’d decided for every listener where to inflect and what tone to apply to each line of dialogue wasn’t the same as determining those things for myself.

Author Betsy Robinson confirms the value disparity between reading and listening in her Publisher’s Weekly piece, “Look, Read, Listen.” In it, she cites the research of cognitive psychologist Sebastian Wren, who found that reading uses more of the brain than does listening. When listening, Wren claims, we don’t use our occipital cortex to visualize as we do when reading.

Cognitive psychologist Daniel T. Willingham, “Ask the Cognitive Scientist” columnist for American Educator magazine and author of The Reading Mind, among others, notes another difference: “[Reading] requires decoding and [listening] doesn’t.”

“Reading” it would be, then, air quotes and all.

(But only with Ian. No one else had to know I was cheating to build my “read” list.)


I’ve been air-quoting “reading” since my first legitimate introduction to audiobooks this past winter. Before then, the only time I’d heard a book—well, part of a book—was in a hot car during a summer visit to Minnesota in the eighties. It had put thirteen-year-old me to sleep, and so it had also put me off audiobooks. But exactly thirty years later, Ian would get an Audible account to ease the pain of stop-and-go work commute traffic, and not long after that, on a drive to Litchfield, Connecticut to do some Christmas shopping, he’d convince me to listen to J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.

I warned him that I might fall asleep.

I didn’t. I was captivated, fully immersed in the narrative flooding the car as we slipped into the snowy beauty of a winding country road.

After our Christmas shopping, Ian pulled into the garage, turned off the engine, and still had the rest of Hillbilly Elegy to listen to the next time he got behind the wheel.

I had no Hillbilly Elegy, and I suddenly very much wanted not only Hillbilly Elegy, but other books. I’d had so little time for reading for such a long time that listening to a story unfold had made me realize how desperately I’d been missing the electrifying magic of other people’s words.

Too, audiobooks had worked so well for Ian and his traffic problem that I thought they might kill the monotony of the twice daily dog walks I’d been taking for two years. Music wasn’t cutting it, anymore. As audible scenery went it held all the excitement of the dull evergreen shrubs Lenny and I passed on Hackmatack every afternoon.

I added the Audible app to my phone and chose my first book, watching with Christmas-morning impatience as the files downloaded, downloaded.

The first month of mobile “reading” was dedicated to some books Ian had already bought. Barry Eisler’s John Rain series filled my head for weeks, Eisler’s voice accompanying me as Lenny and I stepped through and over Hackmatack’s sidewalk snow.

Because Eisler reads his own novels (and with such skill that AudioFile Magazine has twice awarded him the Earphones Award), while I may have been denied the freedom of my own interpretations, I was at least hearing the words in the precise way the author intended. It was no different from being at a (very) long author event, really, which even literature professors would agree is an acceptable way to be read to.

When my Eisler stash was gone I considered other fiction, but I chose nonfiction, instead, believing listening to it would be not only educational, and therefore justified, but also every bit as harmless as listening to authors read their own work. After all, how many literary or tonal nuances could possibly grace the biography of Walter Cronkite? Or the history of human evolution, as chronicled in Sapiens?

My first exposure to a novel read by someone other than the author came only after I’d exhausted the list of available, and interesting (to me), nonfiction. In a “why not?” moment of reckless abandon, I downloaded Liane Moriarity’s The Husband’s Secret.

Reader Caroline Lee was utterly fantastic. By the time I finished, I was ready to listen to virtual stacks of novels not read by their authors, and one after another they engrossed and delighted. I was insatiable!

And then came a jarring confrontation with the other power of a voice.

The book’s synopsis promised a suspenseful page turner. I pressed “play” the moment I stepped outside with Lenny. As the woman read, I noticed that my pace slowed. Five minutes in, I was getting distracted by things to kick on the sidewalk—acorns, small rocks, a clump of dirt. Ten minutes in, I yawned, bored almost to the point of feeling anxious by the slow, spiritless voice in my ear buds. I pressed “pause,” switched apps, and listened to music.

There, then, was another critical difference between reading and listening: the wrong voice/tone/energy could murder an otherwise absorbing book.


I was thinking about the unfairness of it all—poor writers, losing readers for reasons other than the writing!—when author Ian Thomas Healy, in the course of my 5 On interview with him, suggested that I have my own novel adapted into an audiobook. He’d had a few of his adapted, he said, and he’d seen an increase in sales as a result.

“Reading” someone else’s work, pressing “pause” and returning a book if I didn’t like the voice or reading style, was one thing, but I certainly didn’t want anyone doing that with my book.

I also shared Betsy Robinson’s sentiments about the desired nature of the writer/reader relationship: “[W]hen I spend four years honing a novel, I’m not imagining some intermediating interpreter conveying it to a reader,” she writes in “Look, Read, Listen.”

When I ultimately decided to go ahead with the audiobook, it was because of the important words Healy had used: “increase in sales.” I swallowed any discomfort—discomfort that can pull like sickness when it’s a fear of your hard work being misrepresented—and began the process.

In the months since, the audiobook has been published and I’ve thought a lot about the artistic conversion from text to voice. While Willingham does say reading requires more decoding from the reader than does listening, he adds, however, that “…most of what you listen to is not that complicated. For most books, for most purposes, listening and reading are more or less the same thing.”

Decoding is more important for those learning to read, he explains. Those who have been reading for some time are generally already fluent at it.

Well, whew! That eliminated some of my own cheater guilt, but as it happens, listening to a novel is valuable even for those who don’t read text well. Educational website Reading Rockets lists among the benefits of listening to audiobooks that listeners gain access to work above their skill level, they’re given a model for interpretive reading, and they’re more likely to explore new genres.

For the seasoned reader of text, audiobooks also help develop critical listening skills, according to Reading Rockets. I can attest to this—it definitely takes concentration and a commitment to pay attention.

I was surprised as an audiobook listener to not miss what Robinson describes as the “full-sensory and gloriously autonomous experience of a direct hit from words on a page,” or even the hours of visualizing my occipital cortex wouldn’t be doing.

Instead, when “reading,” I delighted in the sound of the poetry of words where such poetry existed. There was also an unanticipated side effect: memorable scenes attached themselves to my exterior sensory experience. When Lenny walks and I huff up a steep path where, months ago, I was “reading” Suki Kim’s Without You, There Is No Us, I’m transported to a Pyongang school cafeteria’s obedient students and nervous, secretive teachers. A love-lock fence section of Main Street plops me in the middle of a military school dorm room, where emotionally stunted and lovable cadet “Pig” lectures his paisans about what they’d better not say in the presence of his girlfriend’s picture in Pat Conroy’s Lords of Discipline. I can still hear John Rain/Eisler in my head, still taste a sip of whisky in a Tokyo bar, when I walk down Hackmatack, and an image of the snow covered trees on the narrow road to Litchfield watermarks my memory of Vance’s description of Appalachia.

The writer in me is now grateful for the audio option less for sales potential than for the ability to reach others who “desperately want to read, but no time, no time…” As much as I feared the influence of someone else’s voice, I—like every writer—had to accept that writing will always be interpreted, correctly or incorrectly, by the silent reader, the listening “reader,” the voice reader, or the literature professor who, more often than not, will just tell students how to interpret the work. Admittedly, I’m also comfortable with it because I was paired with Nila Brereton Hagood, an insightful voice reader. She incorporated personal interpretations that got me to laugh or made me mad, and in places I as the writer should have been immune to. She was also eager to collaborate, which meant there were two of us who wanted the story to be told right.

The book lover in me, though, is even more grateful for the audio option. In just eight months I’ve been able to “read” thirty-eight books I otherwise wouldn’t have. I’ll still use air quotes around “reading,” but only for the sake of accuracy. My cheater shame has been edged out by the conviction that writers write in order to have their words experienced, and that readers and “readers” alike just want to experience them. Period.

“Comparing audio books to cheating,” Willingham writes, “is like meeting a friend at Disneyland and saying ‘you took a bus here? I drove myself, you big cheater.’ The point is getting to and enjoying the destination. The point is not how you traveled.”

Posted in Guest Post, Publishing Industry.

Kristen Tsetsi is most recently the author of the novel The Age of the Child, "an exciting drama that illuminates the hypocrisies of our time without flinching” (Alan Davis, author of So Bravely Vegetative). She's a former adjunct English professor, former reporter/columnist/feature writer for a daily newspaper, former instructor of expository-, play-, and screenwriting, and a former editor of the literary journal American Fiction (New Rivers Press). She lives in Connecticut with one husband, three cats, and one dog.

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King Crescent

Interesting! I’ve never been a big fan of audio books. I just feel they take the charm away of reading a book in your hand. Plus I like collecting books, so that’s one more reason.

Kristen

King, I love collecting books, too! I have many sitting on my shelf, most of which I’ve read, and others that “I’ll read some day – seriously, I will.” 🙂

King Crescent

Haha. Even my shelves are stocked with those ‘plan-to-read-soon’ books.

S. J. Pajonas

Man, I have thoughts on this and it all stems from knowing people who are disabled and CAN’T “read” books, like words on paper. I know a few blind people now and the only way they can read is by Braille (not as many Braille books out there now) or audiobooks or text-t0-speech. Imagine someone shaming them because they didn’t “read” the story. Would you consider that cheating? So, once I realized that it doesn’t matter HOW you consume the story, I had no guilt over this. If you like audiobooks, go for it. If you don’t, then just read.… Read more »

Kristen

S.J., I’ll always mean to stop listening once I step in the door, but so often I don’t want to leave the characters’ world that I’ll think, why not stay immersed in the book while making a salad, or cleaning up, or staring blankly out the window? Bonus: get to keep reading while being all kinds of productive.

S. J. Pajonas

They are super addictive! I listen while cleaning and cooking too. No need for that dead time to go to waste. 😉

Linda Cantoni
Linda Cantoni

No need for shame or snobbery. I’ll take my books whatever way I can get them. I have a large collection of paper books, antiquarian and modern, and I love them dearly, but they were no good to me on my 90-minute commutes in stop-and-go traffic, twice a day. Audiobooks made those trips bearable, enlightening, entertaining. Now that my husband and I are both retired, audiobooks accompany us on long drives to the country when we’re not in the mood for music. Most recently we’ve been listening to Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, read by David Timson. It’s brilliant. At… Read more »

Judy W
Judy W

I feel zero guilt about “listening with my ears” because I seem to get more out of audio books than regular reading. This could be because I was struggling so much because of the head injury that caused double vision & headaches from too much screen time, but a Dr. I was talking to said it sounded like 😉 I was an audio learner. That might be true! I used to close my eyes to really listen in school & when important info was being conveyed & now I wonder if audio was always my style. I am literally transported… Read more »

joanna elm

Speaking first as a writer, I’d say we write fiction so that other people may enjoy the stories we create. It really doesn’t matter if you are enjoying the story by following words with your eyes on a page, or by listening to the words on an audible book. That said, as a reader, I prefer reading to listening mainly because I am a speed reader so anyone speaking the words is usually too slow for me, and I want to hurry them up through the pages! However, in any situation where I can’t glue my eyes to a page,… Read more »

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[…] via Resolving My Cheater Shame: Listening to Books Instead of Reading Them — Jane Friedman […]

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[…] I was poking around Jane Friedman’s blog and read Kristen Tsetsi’s post, “Resolving My Cheater Shame: Listening to Books Instead of Reading Them.” It was a […]

Samantha

I’m with the others who say there is no need to shame anyone. I listened to my first audiobook over the last week. As a younger me I always found when I walked got too distracted by other things to pay attention to the words and I would have to be constantly skipping backwards to see what I had missed. I don’t know what inspired me to listen to an audiobook this week but I am glad that I did. As I said to my daughter, it’s like being read to by someone. Then she pointed out, that’s exactly what… Read more »

Kari Grace

Why is there shame associated with listening? We’re built for synergy and I’m more kinetic. I can tell you for a fact that I learn completely differently when I read, listen, watch, and do.
Loved this post. Thank you for your honesty.
Kari

Margot Potter

I prefer to read books off of a page, but I totally get why people love audio books. I don’t think there’s any shame in listening to a book. However you slice it, reading is a good thing!

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[…] People argue over whether listening to an audiobook counts as reading. Kristen Tsetsi shares her research and how she overcame audiobook shame. […]

Betsy Robinson

Kristen, thanks for reading and referring to my Publishers Weekly piece. To reiterate what I said in it, one of my main points is that “listening” and “reading” are simply different activities. I think audio books are wonderful, not only for readers who enjoy them but for people who cannot read the regular way. There is no shame in listening to audio books. The majority of people who listen to audio books cited in a survey listen while doing other activities, but if you solely listen, I think you can have an immersive experience. If you listen while vacuuming, you… Read more »

Glenda

I love listening to books. It gives me the opportunity to catch up on my TBR list. I like this post.

Mabry Hall

I love to read. Fiction, non-fiction, mysteries, history, anything and everything. I can consume twice as many books if I add listening to my definition of reading. And BTW, you haven’t read Neil Gaiman until you’ve listened to him read his own work.

Rico Lamoureux

Nice piece, especially for those considering audiobooks. As an avid reader from a young age I’ve ‘read’ countless books, but by a cruel twist of fate I became visually-impaired a number of years ago. Although I kept at it, along with writing, both of which now required the use of a magnifying glass. Naturally this slowed me down quite a bit, until I started using audiobooks for my love of ‘reading’ and dictation software for ‘writing.’ It’s all about training the brain, and really doesn’t take that long to get used to either. I would still recommend young people who… Read more »

Michael Ransom

Great post. I have almost exclusively listened to, rather than read, books except when on vacation for last 3 years, ever since discovering Audible. I concur that listening is different from reading but it doesn’t change the fact that I greatly enjoy the story either way. As a writer however I do think that listening doesn’t give you quite the same benefit as reading…reading and writing being more inextricably linked in my mind than listening and writing. So for me I try to do both…listening when I must (driving etc), and reading when I’m able (vacation, in bed). For me… Read more »