A Rose by Any Other Name…

9 Aug

Yesterday, I posed a question on my Facebook page:


I found the responses really fascinating and they got me to thinking a good bit about language, the words we choose, why we choose them, and the like. This is hardly a new fascination. I became a librarian, in part, because of my interest in cultural studies and linguistics; specifically, why research that involved females as subjects always stated such in publication titles, whereas the same involving males did not. Why were males the norm? Why could findings for men be generalized to the entire population, but the same never (or very, very rarely) be said for women? I was curious and it sent me down a path – and an independent study – that led me to discover that there are people within the field of library and information science who study this kind of thing. Who knew? And so I finished up my degree in exercise physiology and headed off to library school. Or something like that.

I asked the question about reading/listening to audiobooks because I was on the Audible website, trying to decide what audiobook to spend my monthly credit on and while reading the reviews, noticed that lots of reviewers referred to the experience of listening to an audiobook as “reading.”  A good number of my friends agreed, pointing out everything from the history of storytelling as a verbal act to the limitations of people with visual impairments. My friend and librarian colleague, Rachel, argued that it’s a “content/container issue,” that if we limit “reading” to absorbing a book through the eyes, then people with limited sight could never say that they “read” a book. It’s a valid point, though it also made me wonder if a person who’s hearing impaired would ever read a book and then say that they listened to it. Do people who are visually impaired recognize a difference between reading Braille and listening? And I also wonder about the neural pathways that form in the brains of individuals who have visual and/or hearing impairments, though that’s a topic that requires a lot more research on my part. It’s too much for discussion here.

People shared that they’re busy and/or have long commutes and if they didn’t listen to audiobooks, they’d never have the time to read anything. But still I wondered, why would you say, “I’d never read anything” when you admit that you listened? My friend, Matt, asked, “So what would be the right verb to cover either?” to which I replied, “How about just saying you listened when you listened and you read when you read?” Or something along those lines. Why do we need another word? Listening is listening and reading is reading. One is no better than the other, they’re simply different.

But do we really believe that? Do we believe that they’re the same? I did sense a slight tone of defensiveness about reading versus listening in some of the comments. I wondered if I didn’t unknowingly imply it when I posed the question in the first place. And I admit that I argued that we do place a lot of value in literacy, that we teach children to read for a reason. (For LOTS of reasons, actually.) So do I believe, deep down, that people who read books are just a little better than people who listen to them?

I wonder if I don’t think of reading as something that’s active, something we do, something we put some effort into, while countering it with a belief that listening is passive, somehow a little bit lazy? I think of the NFL Hall of Famer, Deion Sanders, who I once heard comment that he never quite understood the enthusiasm of fans; the exuberance of simply watching people play a game. “Playing is what’s fun,” he said, with a kind of, “Get up off the couch, lazy bones!” hint to it. I try to imagine everyone at work on Monday morning saying that they played for the Patriots the day before, instead of that they watched them. How nutty is that? Who would say that?

Maybe it’s some of this. Or … maybe I just prefer that people use the right word.

And it’s that last statement that’s stuck with me the most. A few friends commented that to say you’ve read a book when you’ve listened to it is lying. I find that a little harsh, though it’s exactly what White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said about the president when people said he lied about the Boy Scouts calling him on the phone. “I wouldn’t say it was a lie. That’s a pretty bold accusation. The conversations took place, they just simply didn’t take place over a phone call. … He had them in person.” It’s harsh. It’s “pretty bold.” And does it really matter, anyway?

One can argue that there’s a pretty huge difference between the President of the United States lying and people lying when they say that they read something when they, in fact, listened to it. I’ll go along with that. But maybe it’s the times that we’re living in that made me ruminate on this topic for a good 24 hours. There’s an awful lot of excusing people for poor word choice nowadays. And some pretty big consequences in doing so.

Thanks for reading this post. When I turn it into a podcast, you can listen. 🙂

27 Responses to “A Rose by Any Other Name…”

  1. Maureen Dunn August 9, 2017 at 12:19 pm #

    I saw this post yesterday and didn’t get a chance to comment, but on the very rare occasions when I listen to an audiobook, I say I listened to it, not read it. The reason why I differentiate between the two is the same reason why I rarely use audiobooks – I think an audiobook is a performance of the book, and if I can’t get into the narrator’s performance (their voice bugs me, or they read way slower than I would, or they inject emotion in the “wrong” place), I can’t handle it and abort the effort. I think that’s probably why the only audiobooks I’ve truly *enjoyed* (although I’ve listened to others all the way through too) are the ones narrated by their authors. Then I feel like I’m hearing the words how the author meant them to be heard, and if I’m not able to create my own interpretation of the book, I want to hear how it was intended. When you read a book (and I think Braille definitely counts here), you’re creating your own meaning from the words, and how you “hear” the characters’ voices in your head – how you phrase them, or where you have the characters pause – that all affects the meaning that you take from the text. When someone else is narrating an audiobook, they’re the ones layering that meaning over the text, and you have to take it how it’s given. In some ways, and especially with abridged audiobooks, I think an audiobook performance is more like a movie that is faithfully based on a book. You still get the story, but with a director’s vision overlaid on it. Note that this is all more true, probably, for a novel than for a non-fiction book…although memoirs can be tricky. It would be interesting to see if you had a book group listen to an audiobook and then discuss…would you ever hear, “well, that’s not how *I* read it?” I really wonder! Maybe we should try it. 🙂

    • salgore August 9, 2017 at 1:41 pm #

      I love your thoughts on narration, Maureen. I know that Jim Dale received accolades for his readings of the Harry Potter books. And I agree, it’s a talent to do it well. I really do enjoy reading memoirs read by the author. As you say, they are telling the story as they meant it to be told. I like the extra personal nature that this affords.

      • Maureen Dunn August 10, 2017 at 1:10 pm #

        Reading some of the other comments and pondering…I should note that I think if you consumed a book by listening to it vs. visually reading it, it would still be considered “reading the book” in common parlance. A friend of mine the other day was commenting on the fact that his wife bugs him about not reading enough, and then he followed that up by mentioning he had just listened to ‘The Boys in the Boat’ on audiobook, and my response was, “Well, you read that one then!” Jack reads almost exclusively via audiobook, and while I think it’s a different way of experiencing books, it still “counts” if anyone’s keeping track. I would never even think of considering it a lie. (Whereas if you tell me you read all the Harry Potters and then I find out you actually just watched the movies, you’re sunk with me – lol!) Maybe it’s because I don’t do it much, and find it to be such a different type of experience, that when people ask me if I read a book and I actually listened to the audiobook, my response is, “Yeah, I listened to that one.” This is a fun topic to think about!

      • salgore August 10, 2017 at 1:14 pm #

        Totally agree, Maureen. Everything counts. I’d never suggest otherwise. I just find it curious that we say “read” when we listen, as if we’ve convinced ourselves that one is better than the other.

  2. Hinde August 9, 2017 at 1:34 pm #

    Unless something about the audiobook is particularly distinctive, after a while I don’t remember whether I’ve read it with my eyes or listened to it with my ears!

    • salgore August 9, 2017 at 1:38 pm #

      I really love to listen to memoirs (I enjoy reading them, too) read by the authors. I find that it does add to the story to hear their voices.

  3. Todd Puccio August 9, 2017 at 1:34 pm #

    Great Post –
    I have listened to Audiobooks for many years.

    _Do I say I have read the book if I have listened to it ?_
    Yes, sometimes.

    I don’t think it is a question of truthfulness or accuracy per se. It is not necessarily a lie to say one read an audiobook. It is not a lie meant to deceive. Or to hide or misrepresent a truth. In the context the word “read” is meant as a general conversational short cut.

    Usually the question “Did you read that book ?” is made in a casual conversation.
    The question is not usually geared towards wanting to know how that person consumed the material. The question is about if that person knows the book, if they have experienced the content in an unabridged format.
    If I listened to an abridged version, I will always admit that upfront, but otherwise there is little reason to make the distinction between reading and listening amongst a casual conversation.
    Often saying “I listened to the book” will hijack the conversation away from discussing the book and move it towards a discussion about listening vs. reading.

    And that is not what the question was intended to do.

    ** In casual informal conversation, clarity of communication does not always necessitate exactness of detail. We are free to use conversational shortcuts to further advance the topic at hand. **

    We can answer the underlying question without answering the exactly stated question.

    I would say that answering “No – I listened” to that question as a matter to satisfy one’s sense of detailed accuracy is obtuse and obstructive to the simple conversational intention of the question. It can be quite off-putting to many people.

    In short, “Don’t be so obtuse and literal, Mr. Spock – I was just making small talk, — whatta bore.”

    And on this :
    “I wonder if I don’t think of reading as something that’s active, something we do, something we put some effort into, while countering it with a belief that listening is passive, somehow a little bit lazy? ”

    I suppose for me I consider listening to be very active, I form the visions in my mind, colors and smells.
    Verbal (audio) storytelling is the most ancient of story transference. I have found reading letters of ink on a woodpulp page to be an extra step to get to the story.
    I am one of those people who read to myself in my mind. Yes, I sound out every word I read in my mind, as if I am creating an audiobook in my head.

    * To me — every book _is_ an audiobook.

    You can call me lazy if you want, but I have found that I understand and retain much more of the content, and experience much more of the vision of a book when the task of reading it has been removed from my experience. I am more free to actively engage with what material is transmitting rather than its mode of transmittal.

    But, maybe that’s just me….

    Cheers — thanks for another good Blog Post !

    • salgore August 9, 2017 at 1:37 pm #

      I love all of these thoughts and comments, Todd! Thank you so much for engaging in the discussion. 🙂

    • Barbara August 10, 2017 at 7:19 am #

      It has always struck me as a little odd, but I like Todd’s take.

      I’m interested in how people feel about polls/stats about how many books a person has read in a year. Do audiobooks count or no? I know someone who has little time to sit down with a book and “read.” But much of his work is physical, and performed when no one else is around. He “listens” to dozens of books a year, and definitely absorbs them as fully as many of us do by reading. If asked how many books he has read this year, should he answer zero or 24?

      • salgore August 10, 2017 at 1:15 pm #

        I believe that everything counts. That’s not the question. What interests me more is why we think listening is less than reading and/or if that’s why we say we “read” audiobooks. Do we feel lazy for listening? It’s what I asked myself in writing this post. Thanks for all of the really thoughtful comments. I’ve never written a blog post that prompted so many. 🙂

      • salgore August 10, 2017 at 1:17 pm #

        BTW, I spent several years during grad school working in the packing department at LL Bean. I listened to LOTS of books during that time, like your friend.

  4. Susan Harman August 9, 2017 at 2:10 pm #

    I confess I really haven’t listened to any audiobooks. It seems to me whatever you get from the audiobook isn’t as ‘permanent’. Maybe it’s because I’m older (ahem) and I like to be able to re-read, check back on something that happened earlier that I’ve forgotten, etc.

    There’s been research on reading something in print, versus something on the computer and its effect on learning and remembering. Of course that research was done on educational/professional reading, not leisure reading.

    Even when I hear a conference presentation or watch a webinar I really enjoy, I always wish I had copies of the slides or something tangible.

    Maybe it’s just me. And yes, I print out way too much stuff from the computer!

    • salgore August 9, 2017 at 2:14 pm #

      Thanks, Susan. I find that I’m not able to listen to audiobooks that are trying to teach me something new. I have a hard time following along and remembering. I stick with memoirs and lighter fiction.

  5. Melanie Bednarski August 9, 2017 at 2:16 pm #

    From Merriam-Webster

    https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/read taken on (8/9/2017)
    Definition of read

    play \ˈred\;
    play \ˈrē-diŋ\

    transitive verb

    a (1)
    to receive or take in the sense of (letters, symbols, etc.) especially by sight or touch (2)
    to study the movements of with mental formulation of the communication expressed •read lips (3)
    to utter aloud the printed or written words of •read them a story
    to learn from what one has seen or found in writing or printing
    to deliver aloud by or as if by reading; specifically
    to utter interpretively
    d (1)
    to become acquainted with or look over the contents of (something, such as a book) (2)
    to make a study of •read law (3)
    to read the works of
    to check (something, such as copy or proof) for errors
    f (1)
    to receive and understand (a voice message) by radio (2)
    understand, comprehend

    I prefer to go with the last two words and therefore I say I read an audiobook. I often have an audiobook going, a paperbook, and a book on my kindle going at once.

    • salgore August 9, 2017 at 2:20 pm #

      Thanks for commenting, Melanie. Understanding and comprehending are definitely the end goal(s). And like you, I always have multiple reading/listening happening in my world, too.

    • Todd Puccio August 9, 2017 at 4:04 pm #

      Heh – Yeah and just think about how many times we say that we flew into town.
      When indeed we didn’t do the flying. We were not the pilots we were passengers.

      We were actually flown into town – by someone else, but in casual conversation we rarely say we rode, or were transported, or some other passive phrase. We use the active sense of fly, flew, flown just as if we did the activity.

      The same can be said for audiobooks.
      The books were read to us – word for word –
      And thus we can easily say we read them.

  6. Frances Guinness August 9, 2017 at 7:48 pm #

    Interesting discussion. When we read, aren’t we actually listening to our own voice, internally or out loud? (As an editor, I read a lot of work out loud to improve the punctuation and language flow). An audio book is simply someone else’s voice (with added performance features) and eases the eye strain.
    Having said that, reading is a singular activity, whereas listening to an audiobook is often multitasking (ironing, washing the dishes, driving), so I agree with Sally on the content, and Susan on the ability to reread or check back to an earlier detail.
    Maybe we should say that we ‘absorbed’ a story, and leave out the format altogether!

    • salgore August 9, 2017 at 8:55 pm #

      I like your distinction between reading being a singular activity, while we often do other things while we’re listening to an audiobook. I know it’s true for me and it completely explains why I can get through an audiobook so much faster than a book. 🙂

  7. Julie August 10, 2017 at 7:27 am #

    I “read” about 100 books a year, and finally started noting on Goodreads whether I read it with my eyeballs or listened to it, and sometimes I will go try the other format. I’m surprised that nobody made the distinction between fiction and non-fiction; I usually prefer to read fiction with my eyeballs and listen to non-fiction. That’s partly because I have a hard time sustaining attention for non-fiction, especially in bed at night. The audio keeps going until my attention returns – whereas a paper book would languish on my bedside table.

  8. Jennifer Arnott August 10, 2017 at 1:36 pm #

    Hi, Sally –

    I’m the Research Librarian at Perkins School for the Blind (I don’t work directly with patrons at the Perkins Library/Braille and Talking Book Library, but I do things like help with this kind of question.)

    There’s an article from NYMag at http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2016/08/listening-to-a-book-instead-of-reading-isnt-cheating.html that highlights some of the science with links to additional info and resources.

    (Short version: past a certain point in late elementary school, there isn’t much difference in what is actually going on in our brains. There’s some decoding with text that isn’t there with audio, but by about 5th grade, most of us are so good at it it isn’t effort anymore.)

    That said, there is a fair bit of research on why braille matters.

    Learning braille (or other methods of creating text yourself, rather than taking it in) turns out to be a very important step in literacy, and in building a variety of literacy skills. So just consuming audio information – especially for kids learning to read or in the stages of developing literacy skills, up to about high school – is a problem.

    A lot of people learn braille, but use audio in various forms (audio books, screenreaders, etc.) as their primary method of taking in text. The American Printing House for the Blind does stats on this every year (they’re the main provider of braille and tactile materials for US kids who need them, through a federal quota system). Here’s the data for 2016: http://www.aph.org/federal-quota/distribution-of-students-2016/.

    Glad to help with other questions of this kind, or people who are curious about the topic!

    • salgore August 10, 2017 at 1:39 pm #

      Hi Jennifer, THANK YOU SO MUCH for sharing such great info for the discussion. Someone else shared the NYMag article with me, too. Really interesting. I appreciate how you differentiate between creating and consuming when it comes to literacy, too. Excellent point. I’m SO enjoying the discussion that this post prompted. 🙂

  9. Eleanor August 10, 2017 at 4:12 pm #

    Why not say “I read an audio-book”? We say we read a book aloud (at bedtime or storyhour) because while the audience is listening, somebody is actually reading the words on the page. So, in common, casual speech, we drop the “aloud” and just say “I read them a story”. Everyone understands the missing “aloud” (should I say the “aloud” is silent? I love English!). I am not a big fan of audio-books. The narrator always reads too slowly for me, plus I zone out after a bit and my mind wanders. But give me the actual book to read, and I’ll hone in so sharply, I won’t hear you calling me for dinner. IOW, we’re all different. I would never say er, consuming an audio-book is not a positive thing, enhancing understanding and providing entertainment/pleasure or information (or all 3). I think in a literate adult, with miles of print under their belt, it does count as reading. I would be more leery in regards to a child who is a reluctant reader, but an avid audio-book consumer. I would never discourage the audio portion, but at some point, to achieve fluency in reading, eyeballs must be put to the page (or screen–another whole discussion). So, I say hurray for options, but let us not neglect reading while enjoying listening/ story-telling. I do not know for sure, but I bet the Braille issue is one of muscle memory and synthesizing the information at a neural level. No matter the source, it’s all grist to the mill, but we all need the different types of um, grist. 🙂

    • salgore August 10, 2017 at 4:18 pm #

      Thanks, Eleanor. If you’re the person reading the book at bed time or story time, it makes perfect sense to say you’re “reading.” Are the children reading, though? That’s my question. We don’t say that they are. We say that they’re listening. Maybe “reading along,” if we’re working through the words together. But when the being read to comes via an audiobook, we say we’re “reading.” I don’t see the difference. Listening is listening. Reading is reading. But it’s really an interesting discussion that this simple question has generated. 🙂

      I came across this article today that I think explains why I struggle at times with audiobooks, i.e. the wandering mind. https://www.fastcodesign.com/3026224/your-brain-on-audio-books-distracted-forgetful-and-bored

      Thanks for adding to the discussion!

      • Judy Donn September 7, 2017 at 10:12 am #

        I find that, if I have things on my mind, it wanders whether or not I am listening to or reading material

  10. aud August 10, 2017 at 5:26 pm #

    The cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham answered this question http://www.danielwillingham.com/daniel-willingham-science-and-education-blog/is-listening-to-an-audio-book-cheating

    • salgore August 10, 2017 at 9:29 pm #

      Yes, this has been mentioned in earlier comments, along with some other informative links. Check them out. They still, however, do not address the heart of my post, i.e. why do we believe the verb “reading” is superior to the verb “listening”? If we truly recognized them as merely different activities, neither being better than the other, we’d never feel like listening – saying “listening” – to an audiobook is anything less than reading. THAT was/is my point/question. Thanks for joining the discussion.

  11. Judy Donn September 7, 2017 at 10:07 am #

    My unasked-for 2 cents. I am probably the rare librarian who does not particarly like reading, but, despite that, I have done quite a bit. These days most of my pleasure reading is by audiobook. I find that the main difference between listening to and reading words is that my imagination is much more stimulated by actually reading ( not listening to) the words.

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