“I don’t believe there are books I’ve never ‘read’ because I have only heard them, or poems I’ve not experienced because I’ve only heard the poets read them. Actually, I believe that if the writer is someone who can communicate well aloud (some writers can’t), you often get much more insight into a story or poem by hearing it.”— Neil Gaiman
In English there are many things we agree we can read:
The room filled with well-dressed strangers
The mouthing of lips from across the table
The strokes of paint fanned over the canvas
Yet when it comes to digital books, for some reason the agreement seems to end.
Is reading an ebook still reading?
Do books on tape count as reading?
Our ability to read exists in many forms, from interpreting shapes, to gaging situations and listening to sounds. Regardless of format, be it a physical book, an audiobook, or an ebook, the messages they carry remains the same—making them different paths that lead to the same end. To think that there is a hierarchy within the forms (or claiming one is more “pure”) is to negate the historic ways people have learned information, the different ways people receive information (see the social model of disability), and the quality of the information they get through these different forms.
For most of human history, writing has not been the dominant mode of human communication. The written word has existed for less than 6,000 years, and it is suggested that we have yet to develop the mental processes specialized for reading the written text, and instead rely on our older cognitive tools that have developed to understand oral language. As Neuroscientist VS Ramamchandran argues:
“Language comprehension and production evolved in connection with hearing, probably 150,000 years ago and to some extent is ‘hard wired’; whereas writing is 5,000 to 7,000 years old – partially going piggyback on the same circuits, but partially involving new brain structures like the left angular gyrus .”
As oral storytelling and the written word are intrinsically linked within our physical states, we should think of them as two sides of the same coin—to read is to listen. Indeed, most readers do something called ‘subvocalization’, which is the habit of ‘saying’ the words on the page in your mind as if they were an external voice. In fact, those of us who subvocalize when we read will find it incredibly difficult to even imagine any other form of reading.
Writers of great historical importance in ‘western’ literature, from Homer to various contributors to the Bible over multiple centuries were never in-fact writers but oral storytellers. And in the case of the latter, literacy became a powerful tool of social control through the delegitimization of religious stories not contained in sacred texts.
But does this make their work any less valuable? Any less literate? Of course not.
So why would we assume that listening to audiobooks is somehow inferior to reading them?
Listening to oral stories and reading texts both disseminate the same set of ideas, feelings, and messages. The mediums may vary, but the message remains the same. Text used to be the only means of relaying information across space and time, but modern technology allows for the spoken word to be stored and shipped in the same way, and it can even be used to convey information that text is often lacking, like a specific intonation, or a musical score.
When the question of “what is reading” was posited I could not help but think of the Examined Life episode with Judith Butler where she explores the meaning behind “what is walking” and how we as a society have a narrow notion of how bodies are used. To limit the idea of reading as being something we only do with our eyes, or within the contained structure of printed books, is to fail to value to the experiences of those who exist outside our default norm. Digital formats like ebook and are essential for those with visual impairments (who can change the size of the text on an e-reader), those with dyslexia (who can apply Open Dyslexic font), those who simply aren’t able to physically turn the pages of a book, or those in remote communities who don’t have access to physical books. Audiobooks work in much the same way. Originally created as wax cylinders as part of the initiative of the American Institute for the Blind, they are now used by those with visual impairments, by children who struggle with reading, people who learn auditorily, and people who are non-native speakers (and plenty more!). These “non-traditional” ways of reading do not negate any of the information conveyed by the authors. Much like Butler’s claim that the use of a wheelchair is still ‘taking a walk’, listening to an audiobook or reading a digital copy is still reading, as the relationship between the producer and the consumer of the text is the same.
Some have argued that the information provided through these forms is somehow less valuable, or less tangible. Yet research has argued that information is equally comprehended in these different forms. Furthermore, others have argued that listening to audiobooks actually helps people read. Audiobooks are not a substitute for literacy, but they are also not something that should come with any of the stigma attached to illiteracy.