Audiobooks vs. Traditional Books
By Nick Chhoeun
When I went home to Connecticut a few weeks ago I met up with some friends. We were catching up about the usual things, like work and school, when the conversation turned to books.
I shared my reread of Haruki Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase and, to my surprise, one of friends said he read the book on a trip to South Carolina. I assumed he took a train or a plane— until he said, “I’ve also been getting a lot of reading done on my commutes to work.” I know he drives to work so I was amused by his possible reading-while-driving technique. However, it turns out he considers listening to audiobooks equal to reading. Are they? Is there an advantage to one over the other?
In a study conducted at the University of Virginia, Dan Willingham found that comprehension is basically the same when comparing listening to an audiobook to reading a traditional book. However, he also said that this equality in comprehension is only possible once we’ve learned effectively decode letters into sound, which is typically mastered by the fifth or sixth grade. If your goal is to understand a book, either method will do the trick.
There has to be some advantage to reading traditional books, right? If not, why aren’t we MFA students switching to audiobooks to save time (and sleep)? While I haven’t found much research on this side of the topic, I did find a lot of “common sense” reasons for sticking to the traditional print book. The first reason is being able to understand difficult concepts; with a paper book, you can reread sentences and really examine a text to figure out what an author has said. Arthur Graesser of the University of Memphis writes that the length of retention is longer when reading the traditional book over listening to the audiobook. This longer retention also has to do with the slower visual examination of a text.
As MFA students who may become teachers of writing in the future, we need to consider this topic. Should we allow our students to use audiobooks for class texts? I don’t think we should because we should have students fully examine what a writer is doing in a text so they can learn more than the surface meaning of it. But there can be a middle ground. In subbing for a fifth grade English class, I was told that the students had the choice of reading a traditional book or using an audiobook and following along with the text on an iPad (which many of them chose). I suppose this is a possible compromise.
Which is better, then? Audiobooks or Traditional Books? Most of the research and opinion articles I read concluded that audiobooks are simply another option in a choice-filled society. Just as we call typing a form of writing, maybe we can call listening to an audiobook a form of reading. I’m a firm believer in traditional books, so it’s hard for me to agree that listening to a book is “reading.” But if audibooks are creating more interest in books, maybe they’re not so terrible.
Image: Why to Read
Nick Chhoeun is a staff editor at Café Américain and a first-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.