Feb 26 2011 9:00am

Audiobooks Aren’t “Cheating”!

Flickr image by andronicusmaxI have two sons, and while both are voracious readers, my younger son is severely dyslexic. Not surprisingly, when they were little, reading was a weapon in the arsenal the older one used to torture his younger brother. He’d loudly announce he’d just finished a great book, then proceed to describe the story with just enough detail to make it irresistibly appealing. When his younger brother took the bait and asked, “What happened next?,” he’d fold his arms, smile and say, “I can’t give away the ending, you’ll have to read the book.”

As a lifelong bookworm, writer, and mother, the idea of using books—or rather using what’s inside of them—as a weapon horrified me. So I put a stop to it by introducing my younger son to books on tape.

My older son, being a typical sibling, tried to spoil his brother’s newfound pleasure by telling him he was “cheating.”

The funny thing is, it isn’t only sibling rivals who seem to think listening to audio books is cheating. I once pulled up into a parking lot next to a woman listening to a book on tape. When I asked her the title, she hastily switched it off, blushed, and mumbled that she didn’t usually “cheat like that.” And when I suggested to a friend who was having trouble getting her daughter to read that she try audio books, she responded that she’d rather have her daughter watch the movie version of the book first.

I was floored.

Where did this notion that listening to a book is wrong come from? And how can it be that people think watching someone else’s visual interpretation of a book—including their notion of what the characters and setting look like—is equal to or better than letting the words unfurl in the mind’s eye?

I don’t know about you, but my earliest memory of a book is one that was read to me. I remember being curled up in a big armchair with my dad as I listened to him read Gulliver’s Travels. Before any of us could read, before our societies could write, we had storytellers. I find my response to books on tape—to being told a story—is almost primal. My body relaxes, my mind brain lolls back like a lazy cat in anticipation of pleasure.

Maybe that’s the problem. That listening to a story feels like pure pleasure—there’s no apparent work involved beyond listening.

Why do we assume that? Is processing information through your ears instead of your eyes really less work?

There’s no question listening to a book is a different experience from reading it—but that doesn’t make it any less educational. Several years ago, I was seriously ill—my face was partially paralyzed and the inability to close one eye completely made it difficult to read. The only book on tape in the house was Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. I’m not a huge fan of thrillers, but I found listening to the book fascinating because it made me realize that a large part of the appeal of that book is its brilliant pacing. Just as I’d think, I’m getting bored, Brown would change the narrator’s point of view, and bang—the story would take off again.

Lucky by Alice SeboldThe voice of the reader can bring unexpected depth to a story. Alice Sebold’s book Lucky is about the impact of a brutal rape in college (which a police officer told her she was “lucky” to have survived) on her life. It’s a powerful novel, made even more powerful when you hear the author read it—with the emphasis on the words and phrases, the inflections, just as she heard them in her head when she was writing them down. Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, as read by Lisette Lecat, is series of books that are even better when read aloud. Lecat’s lush South African accent and rolling pronunciation of words like Mma Rmotswe make the stories flow where a reader, unfamiliar with the language, might stumble. And if you’ve never heard Jim Dale read Harry Potter with all his brilliant voices and accents, then you’re missing a rare treat.

A reader can make a brilliant book better and a mediocre one more entertaining—David Sedaris’ recent Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk is a great example. I’m a Sedaris fan and am always excited when he has a new book out; still, these short stories are very different than his usual semi-autobiographical essays.  While they’re full of his usual sharp wit, many—if not almost all—lack his usual warmth and charm. Some are downright creepy and unpleasant. Still, with readers like Elaine Stritch, Dylan Baker, Sian Phillips, and Sedaris himself, I found myself continuing to listen to a book I might otherwise have thrown against the wall. 

Mockingjay by Suzanne CollinsAnd yes, a bad reader can kill a great book. I’m currently listening to the last book in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series, Mockingjay. The reader is Carolyn McCormack, who is probably best known for playing the psychologist in the early years of the Law and Order series. A fine actress, but with a voice that seems too old, too high, too modulated for the dynamic character of 17 year-old Katniss. With all the ongoing debate about who should play the character in the movie, I’m shocked a little more thought didn’t go into who should bring her voice to life on audio . . .

Of course I still read books—in hardcover, in paperback, and on my iPad—but the way I see it, listening to them when I’m driving, or at night when my eyes are too tired to focus anymore, gives me more ways—and time—to enjoy the boundless pleasure of books.

Headphones image courtesy of andronicusmax via Flickr

Before turning her hand to writing commercial fiction, Joanna Novins spent over a decade working for the Central Intelligence Agency. She does not kill people who ask her about her previous job, though she came close once with an aging Navy SEAL who handed her a training grenade despite warnings that she throws like a girl. Published in historical romance by Berkley, Joanna also writes YA spy novels as Jody Novins.

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Mippy Carlson
1. Mippy Carlson
I whole-heartedly agree with your assessment of audio books. I'm a voracious print reader, but I love listening to my audio books, as well. I download them to my iPod and do whatever it is I need to do - cleaning house, running errands, grocery shopping, cutting the grass, and even while showering. My son enjoys reading, too, but last summer discovered the joys of audiobooks.

I also agree that a bad reader can totally kill a book for me. I've had one or two that were so bad I couldn't even get to the half-way mark.
Amber McMichael
2. buriedbybooks
I just don't understand that mentality, either. Storytelling was originally an oral tradition. And people with learning or reading disabilities can benefit from audiobooks and still get to experience the thrill of a great story.

My husband has never been an avid reader. It's too much work for him (I suspect mild dyslexia) but he devours audiobooks. His job requires long hours of driving, so there are weeks where he "reads" more books than I do. In all genres—even romance.

Bad readers can kill a book for me, but there are some books that are transformed by the readers. Barbara Rosenblat does that for me, no matter what book she reads. Her accents and ability to make the characters unique are remarkable. If you haven't heard her do the Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters, you've missed something wonderful.
Joanna Novins
3. JoannaNovins
Okay, I'll give Barbara a try with Elizabeth Peters, but I'm leery...she massacred my beloved Nevada Barr.
Mippy Carlson
4. Kelly McClymer
Bravo! Jody, you say this so well. As someone who has a son with dyslexia, and as someone who tutors children with dyslexia, I wish everyone could read this post!

Reading used to be a social event for a family -- everyone gathered around the mother/father and the hearth to hear the newest installment of Dickens read aloud.

My fondest memories of the (looooong) trip to visit family is either me reading Harry Potter aloud, or (to save my voice) getting the books on tape. Thanks for reminding me.
Keira Gillett
5. Keira
My favorite audio narrator is probably Jim Dale. I love him in Harry Potter - he was phenomenal. He not only had a voice for every character, he never mixed them up, and he aged the voices of the kids from one novel to the next. How crazy awesome?

Then you have books written by people with theater background, like Orson Scott Card. In his opinion, the book he wrote, Ender's Game (the start of a very popular science fiction series), should be listened to because it was written to be read out loud.

I also like the first narrator to read Artemis Fowl. They switched at one point and the second guy had a wildly different interpretation. I didn't like it.

Percy Jackson is good narrated too. There's some errors in voices, but the guy is definitely influenced by Jim Dale.

I've tried romance novels on audio, but my library either always has them all checked out or there just aren't that many. I can't tell. So my options are limited.

I like audio because I can listen to it when I'm doing things that prohibit reading... you know... like driving! lol Commuting with books is great!
Joanna Novins
6. JoannaNovins
Commuting with books is great--except when it makes you miss your ext . Long family trips with books are also good, because it not only makes the trip go faster, if gives you something to talk about later.
Jessica Tripler
7. JessicaTripler
I love audiobooks. I am listening to an Elizabeth Hoyt right now and so enjoying it. I agree with Keira both on the amazingness that is Jim Dale and on the use of audiobooks when driving or doing other things that prevent reading!
Mippy Carlson
8. Amy Lilien-Harper
As a youth services librarian and an avid reader, it pains me when parents consider listening to a book as "cheating." I have so many kids with difficulty reading who have had their worlds opened to the joy of books through listening. Yes, it is a different experience. Yes, reading is a skill we all need. And I don't advocate NOT reading. However, if the child needs to understand and discuss the book in school, isn't it better if they can get through it in a way that allows them to really understand it, rather than spending the whole time decoding and never getting the subtleties of the story. And certainly, wouldn't we rather encourage our children to enjoy books in any way they can, rather than hating reading and books because they view it as pure work?

We have an enormous summer reading club in our library every summer, and we always allow the kids to count books they listened to, as well as ones read. At least for me, it is actually a greater time commitment to listen than to read. And what a wonderful way for a family to share literature and while away the time on a long car trip! I will always be a reader, but my car is rarely empty of an audiobook.

I also agree that the narrator and production can elevate or kill a book. And on that note, I will leave you with a couple of recommendations. The Skulduggery Pleasant series is amazing on audio. So is the Wee Free Men series. And finally, if the wonderful Katherine Kellgren is the narrator, snatch it up! Her ability to delineate characters, do accents, and even sing is superlative. I have yet to hear anything she has narrated, that I did not find a joy to listen to.
Liz Maverick
9. Liz Maverick
@Amy Lilien-Harper I have to second the awesomeness of Katherine Kellgren. I heard her read from Bloody Jack live at BEA...she is such a fantastic actress!
Tara Gelsomino
10. Taragel
I work for an audiobook company but had listened to only one or two before I got here. I've found that what I really enjoy is listening to audios of beloved books that I have already read because then I get to re-experience a favorite in a whole new way.

Katy Kellgren is such a talent. She has a record 10 Audie Award nominations this year! She also narrated a novella for us last year, written in conjunction with Neil Gaiman and hundreds of users on Twitter. We have it posted for free if anyone wants to check it out: Hearts, Keys, and Puppetry.
Mippy Carlson
11. BookWyrm
I love and protect my audiobooks, as one cannot safely drive (or cook) and read at the same time...but I must admit that I am very picky about the voices I listen to, and the choice of reader and production company can utterly destroy the experience. By the same token, abridged versions make me NUTS...I want the full experience, not someone else deciding what's an important detail, scene, etc.

I take a lot of ribbing because I have some books in multiple formats--hardback (for posterity), paperback (for reading repeatedly), and audio (for driving/cooking/cleaning). :)

I tutor kids who have a variety of learning styles, and have found audiobooks to be a sanity-saving tool. Before audiobooks became prevalent, we'd watch a movie adaptation then read the book. Audiobooks, for the most part, eliminate the license often taken by movie makers to make a story more "sell-able".

I'll never stop buying books...that tactile experience is part of my genetic code, I think...but I see the value of audiobooks and will continue to support them, too.
Robin Bradford
12. RobinBradford
There are a few audiobooks that really pushed me into a full fledged audiobook lover:

Connelly's Lincoln Lawyer read by Adam Grupper. This is the first audiobook that I can say I really LOVED.

The entire Dresden files series read by James Marsters. Small Favor is my particular favorite, but the entire series is fabulous.

Scottoline's Lady Killer read by Barbara Rosenblat. I don't know if she nails the Philly accent, or if she just nails what I think is the Philly accent. But she really drew me in to the book.

After that, I was totally hooked. I still come across a "bad" reader every now and then, but it happens less and less.

And dear God, if listening to 40 CDs (Gabaldon's An Echo in the Bone) is cheating, your test is too hard!
Mippy Carlson
13. Krystyna
I am on the verge of liking audio books. I admit I've thought of them as a form of "cheating" in the past, but I LOVE that you draw it back to the origins of oral storytelling (such a key part of so many cultures).
Sad that Katniss' voice is off though. That's a fantastic series.
Mippy Carlson
14. Finny
I love audiobooks. However, I also have to force myself to listen to them. I am visually impaired, but I do have a fair amount of vision, so growing up audiobooks were not allowed, as they were viewed as cheating. Now that I am an adult I can choose to listen to them, but it is still very hard to fight against the programming from when I was young.

Unlike a lot of folks, though, I cannot be doing anything else while listening to them. Due to auditory processing issues, if I am doing something else while listening to an audiobook (or a song, for that matter), I will not understand what is said (or sung).

For me it is much harder to listen to a book than it is to read it, but I do love doing so (when I can get the "cheater" voice in my head to shut up), particularly when my vision acts up and makes reading difficult.

Thank you for this post, by the way--it helps shut that voice up to see people talking about audiobooks in a positive fashion. (As does having a husband who was brought up with them--he is legally blind, though he can read and does so, but growing up, for him, audiobooks were always a viable option.)
Lee Thomson
15. dancing_crow
Bruce Coville has taken on the production of full cast audio recordings. By using a complete cast of voices and judicious sound effects, he brings books to life in ways that continue to delight and amaze my family.

We have a rule about reading the book before you see the movie, but hearing the book is certainly legal! Movies modify a book so much more than reading aloud does. We've found some movies unbearable after reading the book first.

I like Mr coville's taste in books a great deal so I'll just point you to his site ( and let you look and see. It is true that his choices are strongly tilted towards middle school and YA books, but he has some for adults as well.
Mippy Carlson
16. Shinjinee
I love audiobooks too, although I haven't heard one for more than a year. I used to listen to them while doing housework, walking for exercise, or sometimes just because. I listened to Georgette Heyer audiobooks, Lois McMaster Bujold audiobooks, and now I also listen to fantasy, historical fiction, and SF on audio whenever I can.
Julie C
17. Jaya
I've never "read" an audiobook, although it's mainly the cost that puts me off - I went looking last week, and the majority of the books on my TBR pile cost more (sometimes twice as much) as audiobooks than my paper copy! Which is incredibly outrageous and rude, because not everyone can read (through inability or lack of vision) but books should be accessible to everyone, regardless of how you actually digest them - visually, orally or using touch. (Unrelately, I would love to say that one day it would be awesome to be able to smell the content of books - except that except for maybe cooking books, I wager every book has something you wouldn't want to smell. Like someone else's sweaty sex or sick.)

One of my favourite things as a child was those readalong book and tapes things. Which was probably a precursor of the audio-book as we know it now?
Mippy Carlson
18. Janmaus
Love your arguments, Joanna, and totally agree with the points you have made . Several posters have already mentioned particulars with which I would agree, and I was amused to see folks on either side of the love/hate thing certain narrators can inspire. I'm in the love Barbara Rosenblat club, but there are some very popular readers that send me straight to the print versions.

I started listening to audiobooks when I was a school librarian. I had been read to by my mother, and remembered loving radio programs as a child (my parents didn't get a television until 1958). I discovered a Listening Library display at ALA in the mid 90s--what a blessing this would be for my struggling readers. They could earn Accelerated Reader credit for books at their interest level instead of battling their way through easy books that bored them. My school was expanding from a primary school and picking up grades 4-6, so my audiobook purchase allowed me to catch up on books for older kids during my commute. I found myself lingering in the car in my driveway and the school parking lot, and was in love with audio. (At that time, Coville and his Full-Cast Audio crew were recording for Listening Library--totally concur with dancing_crow's recommendation)

It was hard to find unabridged audiobooks for adults at that time, so I grabbed anything I could find--and greatly expanded my reading interests. I also subscribed to Audible in 2001, and despite the new availability of free digital downloads from my library, still love Audible.

I listen more than "read" these days, and listening with my grandsons during the daily drives to and from school and atheletic activities. The 14 yr old is an avid reader, the 12 yr old reluctant, and the 5 yr old catching on fast--they all love audiobooks, although their tastes vary so I give them turns in selecting from my prescreened list (because the little guy follows the stories closely). Listening skills are also important for kids, and the shared audio gives us opportunities to discuss what we've heard and develop their critical skills.
Mippy Carlson
19. BevL
CHEATING?! Seriously? Some of my favorite audio book series are ones that I originally read at least partially in print but never REALLY heard or appreciated the author's true voice until I listened to the audio version. Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse series and MaryJanice Davidson's Queen Betsy series fall into that category.

And I now find that I try to buy all of my Historical Romances in audio because the narrators' accents bring a richness and depth to the characters that I can't "hear" in my Midwestern head. Oh, and when those Historicals are read by men or a dual man/woman narration, well... catch me as I swoon! I mean Stepahnie Lauren's classic Cynster series as read by Simon Prebble? And geez, Phil Gigante now has FANGIRL GROUPIES because of his performances of Karen Moning's Highlanders series.

So CHEATING? Nuh-uh, audio books not only allow me to "read" even when I can't read while working or driving, but they let me appreciate and enjoy so much more of the stories and characters and usually offer new insights into beloved favorite books.
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