As a reader of a certain age, I have begun to take an actuarial view of my bookshelves. How many of these books am I really going to read before my own final chapter?
With more and more books joining my to-read list, the challenge is only growing. That’s a big reason why I’ve become a fan of audiobooks.
Thanks to them, I’ve been able to pick up the pace. A smartphone app allows me to capture the time I spend walking the skyways on my lunch hour and waiting for the bus. Old-school books on CD play while my hands are busy with cooking or craft projects.
If I really want to make progress, I mix the audio with a print copy, because I can read faster than I listen. That’s how I got through Annie Proulx’s wonderful but sprawling 700-page “Barkskins.” Audio also allows me to finish the monthly book club selection and still hit a few from my own list.
Yet, a vague inner voice keeps asking, “Is this cheating?”
The question has been out there for years. A quick web search pulls up a 2013 link, with many more recent installments. Although there seems to be little solid evidence that listening is cheating, doubts persist. Some book clubs seriously discourage it.
In a March Q&A on the Literary Hub website, author Colson Whitehead (“The Underground Railroad”) was asked whether he thinks listening to an audiobook counts as reading.
“That’s over my head, ontology-wise!” he dodged diplomatically. “But I suppose you listen to audiobooks and read print books/e-books. Verbs and their meanings! Either way you are receiving the story.”
Verbs and their meanings, indeed. Daniel Willingham, a University of Virginia psychology professor, takes issue with the verb “cheat.”
“Listening to an audiobook might be considered cheating if the act of decoding were the point; audiobooks allow you to seem to have decoded without doing so,” he writes in his science and education blog. He argues that decoding is not the point for people who want to appreciate the language and the story.
“Comparing audiobooks to cheating is like meeting a friend at Disneyland and saying, ‘You took a bus here? I drove myself, you big cheater.’ The point is getting to and enjoying the destination. The point is not how you traveled.”
Still, am I really concentrating as much when I listen as when I read? If I catch my mind wandering, I will rewind. But what about the times I don’t catch myself? Then again, am I all that much more attentive when I read print? In six months, will I remember those details anyway?
Audiobooks extend my reach, making it possible to “read” a number of long histories (e.g.., “Hamilton”) that I wouldn’t attempt otherwise.
Narrations also can enrich what’s on the page. Narrator Robert Petkoff helped me keep straight the dozens of characters appearing through the centuries in the aforementioned “Barkskins.” Aiden Kelly’s accent helped me visualize the Irish village where Jess Kidd’s “Himself” unfolds.
You could also argue that some audio versions of books are more faithful than the print ones. The hilarious Sarah Vowell narrates her U.S. histories, placing the emphasis where needed to make sure we get the joke.
Then, there’s just the sheer pleasure of hearing Louise Erdrich narrate “LaRose,” as if she were telling the story just to me. Neil Gaiman reminds us that we probably got our first exposure to books by being read to as children.
So cheating or not, guilt notwithstanding, I have no plans to quit my audiobook habit. But what do you think? Does it matter? Do you have rules for which books must be read and which can be heard? Write us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Maureen McCarthy is a team leader at the Star Tribune. Laurie Hertzel is on vacation.