Our Reading Lives

To Read or to Listen, That Is the Question

Sadie Trombetta

Staff Writer

Sadie Trombetta is a book reviewer and feminist writer who spends her free time hiking with her dogs, learning to teach yoga, and smashing the patriarchy. Follow her on Twitter: @lady_strombetta.

This is a guest post from Sadie Trombetta. Sadie is a freelance writer and self proclaimed foodie living in the greater Boston area. She is a ravenous reader, Netflix addict, and nature enthusiast who can usually be found hiking up one mountain or another with at least four books in her backpack. She’s a passionate feminist whose hobbies include cooking, crafting, and yoga.

Sadie’s writing has appeared in numerous online publications including Bustle, Ravishly, BookBub, The Kitchn, and Redbook. Her versatile work covers a range of topics including women’s issues, literature, cooking, health & wellness, and news. Follow her on Twitter @lady_strombetta.

Paperback or hardcover, digital or print, physical or audio, I’m addicted to books of every size, shape, and form, which is why, whenever it comes time to buy a new one, I find myself questioning: what kind should I get? In my decades of experience, I’ve come up with a pretty good system for deciding.

For the longest time, I was a strictly physical book reader. I scoffed at e-readers, rolled my eyes at the mere idea of audiobooks, and harshly judged anyone whose digital library was bigger than their physical one. But as I got older, traveled more, and began reading out of the home more often than I read inside the home, I started to see the benefits of alternatives to my traditional paperbacks and hardcovers. I slowly started dabbling in other forms of reading, and it didn’t take me long to realize that holding a slim Kindle on the train or listening to a book through headphones at the gym is a lot easier than juggling an actual book. It took even less time for me to come up with a system for deciding what kinds of books to get in which form.

Like any true book-lover, I know that I will never get rid of my library — I still aspire to have a Belle-esque room filled with every book ever written — but I have come to learn there is a time, a place, and a genre for every form of book. And while a lot of it may depend on personal taste, I think there are a few general rules of thumb when it comes to one of the hardest questions a book-lover can be faced to ask: to read, to click through, or to listen?

When you read a physical book,  it requires both mental and physical effort, because not only does your brain have to process the words on the page in front of you, but your body has to stay still long enough to keep the pages in front of you . The story you read has to be captivating enough to keep your attention, to keep you seated, and to keep you motivated to hold your arms up. When you commit yourself to a physical book, you commit yourself to hours of not just reading, but to carry around extra weight, to submit yourself to potential paper cuts, to subject your shoulders and your neck to the strain of holding a heavy novel.

I know I’m making reading sound more dramatic, and perhaps more dangerous, than it really is, but the truth is that reading a physical book is a lot of work, so when you decide to put the effort in, you expect a story that’s worth every turn of the page. That’s why when I decide to read a physical book, I pick something that is quite literally a page-turner: thrillers, mysteries, horror books, and dramatic stories. When my brain is occupied trying to solve the crime, uncover the secrets, or guess the ending, my body is too distracted to care about staying still.

In many ways, e-readers require the same physical effort that reading bound books does: you have to hold onto a physical item and stay still long enough to actually read what is in front of you. But with an e-reader, the effort is minimized because of the size and convenience of electronic devices. That’s why, when deciding what to get in digital form, I usually go with longer books I would otherwise hate to lug around in my bag: science fiction, lengthy fantasies, and historical fiction. With the help of an e-reader, a 1,200 space opera isn’t nearly as intimidating (or as heavy) as the printed and bound version.

Audiobooks, on the other hand, don’t require any physical commitment, but they do require mental endurance. Unlike physical books, or even e-readers, audiobooks don’t allow you to skim the pages or skip ahead to dialogue, and they don’t let you check out of the story, either. Because there is nothing physically in front of you to look at and reference, audiobooks force readers to pay more attention, lest they miss an important detail and have to “rewind” the story. That’s why nonfiction books and essay collections work well in audiobook form: they’re loaded with information, but their structure makes it easier for listeners to get the whole story, and the syntax generally translates well in spoken form. Listening to a nonfiction audiobook is just like listening to a long podcast: you can learn and absorb a lot that you might have otherwise missed if you were reading about it on paper.

What you read and how you read is highly dependent upon your own personal preferences, but take it from someone who’s done it all: you fan find the right fit, no matter the story, no matter the form, no matter the preference. That’s just the power of reading.