Reading And Listening Are Different And That’s Okay

Let me get one thing out of the way first: I agree that whichever way you enjoy books “counts”, whatever that’s supposed to mean in this context. Nonetheless, to my dying I will disagree with anyone who says that audiobooks are reading. Reading and listening to are two different cognitive processes—with some higher-level overlap—and so deserve linguistic separation.

Listening to an audiobook activates the brain network specialized for auditory processing, while reading a printed book activates the network involved in visual processing, explains Matthew Traxler, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis. Reading and listening to a book may engage different brain pathways, he tells Mic, but most psycholinguists (they study language the psychological and neurobiological aspects that allow humans to process language) agree that the “mental machinery” involved in the higher-level understanding of a narrative, plot, and so on, is the same regardless of how you consume the book.

(You wouldn’t, for example, after hearing a train pass by in the distance, tell someone that you’d seen a train pass by, even though hearing it let you acquire the knowledge of a train having passed by. We understand that seeing and hearing are two different things without necessarily privileging one over the other.)

Again: I do not think that audiobooks somehow are a lesser book experience. Anyone who loves books, though, you’d think would agree that words have to mean something, and that something should be reflective of the distinctions between things. Reading is an experience that takes place entirely within your own mind, fed directly by the words set down by the author. You can’t just engage in a different activity and call it “reading”.

Listening to a book by necessity involves an intermediary between the words of the author and your own mind. You’re experiencing someone else’s expression of the author’s words, not just your own mind’s impression of them. Cognitively, you’re processing both expression and impression at the same time when listening to a book. In the case of an audiobook read by multiple parties, you’re essentially experiencing a radio play. No one’s ever argued that if you’ve listened to a radio play you’ve “read” the play. Hell, if you go see a production of Hamlet, you haven’t “read” Hamlet.

Really, it’s much simpler: we read books to children all the time before they can do so for themselves (and sometimes even after), and we don’t say that child has “read” those books. They’ve listened to them, but we don’t somehow think any less of them for doing so.

My pedantry, if you want to call it that, isn’t about the relative value of reading a book versus listening to it. It’s about being someone who loves books and who thinks that words (and cognitive processes) have their own, specific meanings attached to them. Reading is different than listening to. Surely we’re capable both of correctly using words and not setting one way of experiencing books somehow above another.

What’s needed is the destigmatizing of saying, “Oh, I’ve listened to that book!” What’s not needed is the dilution of the specific meaning of a word.


  1. In point of fact, what I think we should normalize is, “Oh, I’ve heard that book.” If for no other reason than it’s a single, short word that even has all the letters of the word “read” in it.

    Not to mention that however one experiences a book, it’s still all “started that book”, “finished that book”, and such.

    One other note: basically I consider “book” to describe the content of the thing rather than the form, per se. Effectively there is “print book” and “audiobook”, but they both are books.