Reading Audiobooks

Is it wrong to say I "read" an audiobook?
Originally published: Mar 24, 2022

It’s nearly undebatable that the best books are better than what I read on the internet on a typical day. It’s also true that I haven’t read most of the best books ever written. So, it follows that reading more books would be a good idea.

Sometimes I literally read these books, and other times I listen to the audiobook version. When I take away something interesting from a book, it will often later come up in a conversation with others. When this happens, I generally don’t distinguish between “reading” and “listening” to the book at first. I will say, “I read recently‚Ķ” even though I listened to the audiobook.

Misusing the word “read” in these situations makes me feel uncomfortable. On the other hand, saying I “listened to the audiobook” feels awkward in the heat of the conversation. So, I’ve often wondered, is there anything wrong with reading an audiobook?

This might all be a frivolous debate. Or, if the worst suspicions of one friend I spoke to are correct, society is hurtling towards a future where reading will have lost all meaning.

In my opinion, the only way forward is to establish an etiquette for saying you read an audiobook, which I will attempt to document here.

1. Don’t say you read an audiobook to impress others

In situations where you will earn respect from reading, you should specify if it was an audiobook. Not explaining you listened to the book in such a situation will make you appear deceptive.

This is explained by a cultural sentiment that reading a book is particularly noteworthy. I suspect it is because reading takes uninterrupted time and focus, making it categorically different from other forms of entertainment in today’s world.

This is not to say that reading audiobooks isn’t valuable 1. Nevertheless, if someone believes you’re saying you read audiobooks to mislead or impress them, it will work against you.

2. Actually read books

Even the strictest of bibliophiles will concede that audiobooks can play an important role in a well-balanced literary diet. So, they will cut you more leeway on your verb usage if you also read books.

If you are both reading and listening to books, it has some overhead to track how you consumed each one. I, for one, sometimes forget if I read or listened to a particular title. However, suppose you only ever listen to audiobooks and never read a book. In that case, you should avoid saying you read anything.

3. Be honest with yourself if you genuinely comprehended the book

There is a common belief that you achieve a worse understanding of a book by listening than reading. This suggests you should only say you read audiobooks you fully understand.

I think this is entirely dependent on the book itself. I find listening to audiobooks in genres like business or self-help is better than reading because I apply the material to my own situation while listening. The wondering of the mind inspired by the book helps me get the most value out of it.

The comprehension of an audiobook is also dependent on the reader. I have one friend who told me she takes notes while listening to audiobooks for enjoyment. “It’s like listening to a lecture,” she said. She feels she gets more out of books by listening to them, so there is no harm done by saying she read an audiobook.

If you feel you got the most out of the book as possible, feel free to use whatever phrasing you prefer at first. However, that leads to the next rule of etiquette.

4. Eventually clarify you listened to book

In my opinion, this is the golden rule of saying you read audiobooks.

If a conversation about a book goes on long enough, you will find a point where it is prudent and natural to disclose how you consumed it. You are expected to take this chance to clarify if you listened to the audiobook.

If you are well-intentioned, your initial reference to the book is to specify the source rather than how it is consumed. It isn’t deceptive because you could have gotten the same information from reading or listening to the book. While this gives you cover early in the conversation, you should then be on the lookout for a moment to clarify.

5. Full disclosure is essential

Audiobooks also make it possible to listen at faster than natural speeds or while multitasking. These are critical differences from reading a book, so it is typically relevant to share this information.

This piece of etiquette is best explained by an example.

A friend told me he particularly respected a coworker who read two books a week. He was amazed that his coworker could find time to read, despite having a busy schedule. He held this point of view for some time until later learning that his coworker only ever listened to audiobooks. Even worse, my friend said, the audiobooks were playing at 2x speed while driving to work.

Closing thoughts

In talking to people about this topic, I’ve realized the distinction between reading versus listening to a book likely won’t be settled in one blog post. However, if there’s a silver lining, it is that I know I’m not the only one interested in unpacking this semantic quagmire.

For my next post, I’ll discuss, “do you have to finish a book in its entirety to say you’ve read it?”.

  1. I think listening to audiobooks is immensely valuable. If not, why would parents read books out loud to their kids? ↩︎