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“Audiobooks Don’t Count”: A Suggestion of Extreme Privilege

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Sarah Nicolas

Staff Writer

Sarah Nicolas is a recovering mechanical engineer, library event planner, and author who lives in Orlando with a 60-lb mutt who thinks he’s a chihuahua. Sarah writes YA novels as Sarah Nicolas and romance under the name Aria Kane. When not writing, they can be found playing volleyball or drinking wine. Find them on Twitter @sarah_nicolas.

Every now and then, the argument of whether or not audiobooks “count” as reading pops up in the online book community.

My unqualified (in both senses of the word) opinion? Of course they do.

You don’t have to listen to me, but you should probably listen to cognitive scientist Dr. Daniel T. Willingham, Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia and author of Raising Kids Who Read and The Reading Mind. He says, “’Cheating’ implies an unfair advantage, as though you are receiving a benefit while skirting some work. Why talk about reading as though it were work?… Comparing audio books to cheating 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.

If not Dr. Willingham, maybe this 1985 study, which found listening comprehension correlated strongly with reading comprehension. In a 1977 study, students hearing a short story were able to summarize it as well as those who read it.

Ignoring the facts and the studies and the expert opinions, there’s one part of this argument that really upsets me: Anyone who suggests that audiobooks don’t “count” is coming from a place of extreme privilege. Simply put: able-bodied neurotypical wealthy people have more time and opportunity to read physical books.

Audiobooks can be a literary lifeline to those with physical and neurological limitations. In addition to medical issues, there are also socio-economic factors to consider. If a person has to work more than one job or is raising children, audiobooks are often the only way they have the time to consume books.

When my sciatica was at its worst and walking alleviated the pain more than anything, I walked for hours while listening to audiobooks. Now, I work full-time while also trying to establish a career as an author, so most of my “reading” is done driving to-and-from work and the store. That hour or more per day is vital to satiating my bookish hunger. And I’m not the only one. When I first started formulating my thoughts for this post in August, I sent out the following tweet and received an overwhelming response.

Here are just a few of the responses I received:

“I listen to audiobooks when the RA and MS in my body make it too difficult for me to hold a book or eReader. I also listen when my eyes can’t focus thanks to the same diseases. And many times I listen when I’m doing other things around the house or driving because I don’t have as much time to read otherwise thanks to work and other obligations.” Carrie Ann Ryan, author

“I had shingles in my eyes last Christmas. My eyes were so photosensitive that listening to audiobooks was literally the only thing I could do for a week. I couldn’t read other books, watch TV or go outside because any light exposure had me crying!” Author Julia Ember

“I started using audiobooks because I was running a teen book club as part of my job and didn’t have the time in my work or home life to read the books we were discussing. So, I used my hour commute to make sure I could run the program effectively and contribute to the discussion.” Mimi Powell, Librarian

“Audiobooks have done so much for me since I have a big problem with migraines. I often can’t look at a screen, whether it’s a computer or e-reader, and need to be in a completely dark room with my eyes shut. Audiobooks enable me to still keep up on current books.” Kaitlyn Johnson, editor and literary agent

“When my children were young, audiobooks made it possible for me to read even when my hands and eyes were too busy. It wasn’t possible to curl up with a paperback and disengage, but I could still cook, clean, and drive while listening.” Jess Creaden, writer

“I have Lyme Disease… several hours of the day, I’m doubled over with pillows tucked underneath me. I’m unable to sit up, much less hold a physical book. Audiobooks help distract me from that pain, and it’s an activity I can do while I’m hurting. … I spend a lot of time in an IV room, which means I don’t have the use of my arm or arms when I have IVs running through them. … They are the only thing I have, the only comfort and pass-time (and an amazing one at that). I wouldn’t be able to read half of what I read if it weren’t for that.” Brittney Singleton, writer

“At the worst onslaught of my Intracranial Hypertension (too much spinal fluid pressure in the brain), I could barely see or stand up due to swollen optic nerves and debilitating pressure headaches and spinal taps. Audiobooks got me through the most painful months, providing limitless entertainment and an escape from chronic illness.” Sabina Lamarca, International Educator

“Before my girlfriend’s grandmother died, she was blind and quite deaf and her main entertainment was listening to audiobooks that the society for the blind sent out to her.” Jess, baker

“My son has ADHD and is dyslexic. Books that were on his reading level did not hold his interest. Audiobooks gave him access to the complex books he wanted to read until his reading level caught up with his interest. … Listening to books helped improve his fluency and ability to read with expression as he would try to copy the reading style of the narrators he was listening to.” Teacher and mother Jenna Rentzel

Whether people listen to audiobooks because they need to or because they simply want to, no one should discount anyone else’s reading because it’s done via a different format. Can’t we please stop policing the way others consume books so that we can all celebrate our shared literary obsession?