Listen Up! How Audiobooks Work Alongside the Printed Page Promoting Literacy and Accessibility
Yes, listening to audiobooks counts as reading.
As a mom of an energetic four-year-old daughter, my time is very limited. Sitting down with a cup of tea and reading a book — on the physical page or an e-reader — feels like a luxury these days. When the question comes up every so often as to whether audiobooks are “cheating,” as someone who has enjoyed audiobooks for a lifetime and been a professional in the industry for over a decade, my answer is “no.”
According to a Reader’s Digest article published on this subject earlier this year, the human brain processes an audio track similarly to words on a page. Grammy award-winning audiobook narrator, creator, and podcast producer Emily Pike Stewart says that for her husband, who is blind, audiobooks are absolutely essential for accessibility.
“He does use braille, but most books don’t even exist in that format. He still devours everything from thrillers to fantasy novels to nonfiction and is one of the best-read people I know,” shares Stewart. “Saying audiobooks aren’t reading has always seemed about as inaccurate to me as saying blind people can’t read. I still don’t really understand how — or why — this debate exists.”
Audiobooks are also keys to accessibility for those who face other challenges, like dyslexia and other neurological conditions that may make it hard for a person to interpret a printed page. Audio narration offers an inclusive alternative for all ages, and the idea that audiobooks “aren’t real books” creates a presumption that those who cannot read traditionally are somehow flawed or incorrect through no fault of their own. One nationwide organization fighting this stigma is Learning Ally, which offers over eighty thousand human-read audiobooks for children of various grade levels to promote literacy for all, regardless of race or socioeconomic status.
In Stewart’s recently launched podcast, The Nomad Narrator, she takes to the road in her tricked-out mobile recording studio, interviewing audiobook narrators and authors alike in their hometowns across America on the lasting impact of the audio medium. The podcast offers a deep dive into audiobook production and the special relationship fostered between the authors who create the words, the narrators who give them life, and the listeners inspired by the magical alchemy of words and sound.
“I worked with one author who wrote her book by talking into speech-to-text software,” says Stewart. “And I just interviewed another author for The Nomad Narrator who said he didn’t consider his writing process complete until he’d narrated an audiobook. If it’s true for some authors that speaking equals writing, surely on the other end, listening can equal reading?”
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Audiobooks also have a helpful timestamp on them, and the listener can gauge how long it will take to get through it. Driving is an inescapable way of life for many Americans, and audiobooks can help maximize one’s time amidst long commutes, school pickups, road trips, and traffic jams. My husband, Casey Schoenberger, is a huge fantasy buff but doesn’t have the time or patience to sit down and read hefty tomes.
“I find it easier to process a lot of information in audio form because I like to multitask,” says Schoenberger. “I like listening and doing other things you can’t do while reading, like walking, driving, cooking, or doing dishes.”
Schoenberger also mentions that the voice acting aspect can add a lot, citing Australian narrator and actor Rob Inglis, whose incredible vocal versatility added depth to his experience of reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
As I balance motherhood and being a professional writer, I find it easier to reread my favorite books in audio form, such as the Mary Poppins series by P. L. Travers I devoured in my youth (quite a bit darker than the famous Disney films). British narrator and actor Sophie Thompson helped me revisit old friends in a new light, giving Poppins the characteristic edge neither Julie Andrews nor Emily Blunt could ever quite successfully capture on screen.
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On Constance, a memorable memoir written and read by actress Karin Konoval about her impressions of New Orleans I reviewed for AudioFile Magazine earlier this year, wouldn’t have had the same impact for me on the page as it did in audio. I have family in “The Big Easy” and lived there for a short period of time, so it was humorous as well as gratifying to hear Konoval pull off light but believable Louisiana accents and discuss her experiences in several places and spaces I know well.
This is not to say every book works as an audiobook. In my time as an audiobook proofer for various production companies, I listened through devastatingly boring volumes on cooking (Who can remember all those ingredients without constantly hitting the back button?), saving up for retirement, and how to refinance your home. And sometimes, the story and the narrator are not an ideal match, degrading rather than elevating the experience.
Whether one chooses to listen or read — or both! — is a personal choice. Audio as a medium as well as a product works together with the printed word to make authors’ work more accessible to more people.
Next time you are strapped for time and hesitate to pop in your earbuds or turn up the car volume to listen to that audiobook on your Libby App, just remember you aren’t “cheating” — you are making reading work for you!
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