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What verb do you use for audio books?
2009/04/02 - 7:23am

My wife objects to my using the verb “to read” in reference to an audio book. She is a teacher, and knows there is a great difference between reading something and having it read to you. Still, I don't think that “listening to” is quite right. It sounds bad to me especially in the past: “I listened to Atlas Shrugged last week.” doesn't really work for me.

The blind can “read” books in Braille; they don't “feel” them. But I can acknowledge that there is a difference there: Braille doesn't insert another person between the author and the reader; audio books create a three-way relationship between the author, reader, and listener.

I do note that I was compelled to use listener for clarity in this case.

So, what verb do you use? What else have you heard in your community?

2009/04/02 - 12:06pm

She is a teacher, and knows there is a great difference between reading something and having it read to you.

With due respect to your wife, that kind of remark makes my ear hairs bristle! There are plenty of folks who believe - actually and sincerely believe - that reading Shakespeare is somehow superior to watching - and listening - to the play. Shakespeare would have thought that much ado about nothing. Do those same people believe that reading jokes and song lyrics is superior to listening to them? Why have so many people come to think that ripping the aural elements from a story is so good?

One theory is that it's been so long since the days of story telling and troubadouring that we have forgotten that the aural word is ideal while the written word is a convenience. A great convenience, no doubt, but a convenience none the less. Many people hold the mistaken assumption that listening to a story is easier than reading it, that reading requires us to engage more of our brain. That is simply not so, in terms of how much of the brain is engaged in taking in the story. I would argue that listening to a well-told story, or watching a play, involves much more of our brain (and emotions), without the "distractions" of squinting at words on a page. I am a reader, and I love to read, but I also love to listen to stories, and I feel more involved with a story when I'm listening. I am actually working harder when I listen rather than read because I must concentrate and pay attention, if I want to get immersed in the "flow" of the story and avoid constant rewinding.

I will never forget my first "epiphany" with listening to stories. Huckleberry Finn had always been one of my favorites, and I loved to read it. But then I heard it read by a master story teller - an English Lit college professor - and entire new dimensions opened up for me. I remember thinking it odd that a college prof would read a story to college-age students. Story telling was for kids! Boy, was I wrong! For years after that class I sorely missed that kind of engagement with literature. But then audio books started to come out. But I didn't jump on that bandwagon right away. It wasn't until my job required me to drive a long daily commute that, in desperation, I started to listen to audio books in my car. I was instantly hooked. Sometimes I actually wished for traffic to be bad! I was amazed at what a master story teller could do, even with books I had read many times.

Listening to well-told stories teaches us how to tell stories and improves our overall ability to communicate. There is so much more of a story that is communicated through sound as well as sight. Readers, even good readers, stand to lose a lot when they don't listen to a well-told story. Sure, your wife could argue that one reason reading is "better" is that the reader must create the sounds and sights in his own mind - "put on the show," so to speak. Reading is more "active" and listening or watching is passive. I think this myth comes from observing people passively watching bad TV shows, or worse, reruns of bad TV shows, while mindlessly munching on potato chips. Believe me, there are just as many people who passively read books. I remember plenty of my classmates in school who could hardly remember any details of the books they were forced to read. The mind has the marvelous ability to wander and not absorb what it has no interest in.

Anyway, maybe your wife didn't mean any criticism with her remark about the "great difference between reading and listening." But I used that to get this great pet peeve off my chest! And to answer your question, I think it makes perfect sense to say that you "read" a book when in fact you listened to it. I say the same thing. If you tell people that you listened to a book, it confuses some of them. Also, some people - even some people in my book club! - think that listening to a book is "not the same" as reading it. Unless I'm in the mood to engage in a debate with them, why bother bringing it up? If I say I read it I can get on to discussing the book with them, without the hassle of dealing with their prejudice.

2009/04/02 - 12:20pm

One more thing: I'm sure that Martha and Grant will soon stop doing their radio show and switch over to a written blog format. It would be so much better to read them than to listen to them!

2009/04/02 - 1:02pm

To clarify my wife's position, she makes no value judgment as to the relative merits of reading a book, or having it read to you. She actually is a Special Education teacher, with a specialty in reading skills. She must communicate through many different learning modes to a variety of students. She also develops her students' skills in reading silently, reading aloud, and listening to reading — and taking in the important content in all of these activities.

Perhaps it is her specialty that is making her sensitive to my word choice.

So at least I have one other “reader” out there. Maybe I just need to do air quotes when I say "read."

859 Posts
2009/04/02 - 4:45pm

Instead of saying, "I read an audio book." you could use the same words and say, "I audio read a book."

If you object to the adverbial use of "audio", you could say, "I aurally read a(n audio) book."


2009/04/02 - 6:05pm

Glenn, I figured that your wife was as nice as you are! I hope you don't mind that I used her non-critical remark as a pretext. The primary reason I tell people that I “read” a book rather than listened is simply to avoid confusing them. After a few puzzled looks and responses like “What?” I found it was easier that way. So unless I want to explain to people how great audio books can be (and sometimes I do), and unless I am in the mood to defend audio books from those who criticize them, I say I read it.

Which brings me to another thought: More and more email services are offering the option to read your emails out loud, in a not-too-bad electronic voice. Of course the voice quality gets better each year, and it's only a matter of time before it sounds reasonably human. So if we start listening to our emails, will we say that we read them or listened to them? For that matter, voice recognition software is getting better all the time, too, and it won't be long before we do more dictating to our computers than typing. When that happens, will we say that we are writing text or dictating text? I can see it (hear it?) now: A kid telling his mom that for homework he has to dictate a 500 word essay. And of course the computer software will tell the kid when he has reached 500 words. The only problem is, if the kid is listening to rap music while dictating, the computer may throw a few choice words into the essay!

2009/04/02 - 6:23pm

Your insights bring to mind the persistence of "dialing" the phone. Although I do hear "press" mostly for digits once connected, the connecting number still seems to be "dialed." My grandson told us he has been learning how to tell time. When my wife asked him what the time was, he said "nine colon twelve.". Some things move more quickly than others. I still "roll down" my car window even though the motion no longer remotely resembles any circular motion as it was when I was a tot. But I expect that "quarter past" will fall away quickly.

I suppose it depends on complex linguistic factors.

2009/04/03 - 5:49pm

Great examples! Though more and more I'm hearing people say that they are calling, rather than dialing, and asking to open the car window rather than roll it down. Still, I have my doubts that reading and writing will be replaced anytime soon. Who knows? Maybe they will become idioms long after people no longer actually read and write. And since commercial jets virtually fly themselves, highly trained pilots don't really fly them, do they? These words should be printed on their caps: "For Emergencies Only."

Martha Barnette
San Diego, CA
820 Posts
2009/04/03 - 6:30pm

Fascinating discussion, guys. (And changing AWWW to a blog??? Oy, heaven forfend.)

I caught myself wondering something similar just the other day when I was telling someone that "Grant and I had talked about" this or that. I realized after I said it that we hadn't literally talked -- we'd discussed it in email.

The audiobook question is a great one. I suppose I do say I "read" Assassination Vacation and The Wordy Shipmates. Sometimes I have to stop and make an effort to recall whether I actually listened to them or read them in print, kind of like not recalling whether I had a conversation about a particular topic in English or Spanish. Would love to hear y'all chew on this topic some more!

2009/04/04 - 6:23am

This has morphed into a discussion ofhow technology changes have influenced our everyday vocabulary. Maybe I'll start a new topic

2009/04/04 - 10:41am

I agree with samaphore. I usually say that I've read the book if it's mentioned in passing, but feel compelled to clarify that I listened to it by audiobook if the discussion continues. Probably because just saying "I listened to it" is a bit awkward and seems to need clarification, but you can't really compare notes about the reading experience if you didn't experience it the same way.

My library is probably 50:50 audio and written, and I agree that listening via audiobook is not the same as actually reading the written word. But one isn't necessarily superior to the other. Some excellent books are miserable on audio, and others seem enhanced by the oral performance. It just depends on the type of story and style of the author. I actually learned to read through audiobooks. I pestered my mother for books and stories so often that she bought those read-along books to get me out of her hair. I'd have a ball in my room with my little record player and she'd get some peace and quiet with a cup of coffee in the kitchen.

2009/04/04 - 11:13am

I actually learned to read through audiobooks.

Wow, self-taught reader! I've actually tried that trick for kids who don't read well. I would find good audio versions of children's books and try to get the kids interested enough to listen while reading. But alas, I was never successful, because the kids who don't read well are often the kids who don't like to listen to stories. It took me a while to accept the fact that not all kids like stories. I was a bookworm, and I assumed that there was a bookworm hidden inside every kid, waiting to squirm out!

2009/04/12 - 11:04pm

From the foregoing I gather that it's accepted that listening to an audiobook is not the same as reading it. The original question was in that case what to call listening if not listening. I see no need to employ a synonym, although you might say you've heard the book. We make distinctions between seeing a live production or a movie of something, so why not distinguish between reading and hearing it. Anyway, applying the term reading to the experience of listening seems a bit like catering to your audience's presumed ignorance of the popularity of audiobooks.

2009/04/13 - 2:38pm

Lemastre, I'll disagree on your point about live (stage) productions and movies. Often there are significant material differences in the story between the book, the stage production of a book, and the movie version of a book. On the other hand, there is absolutely no material difference between reading a book and listening to it, making "distinctions" less compelling. It's not that people are presumed "ignorant" of audio books. Ignorance is not what I'm presuming when people get confused when I say I heard a book; I'm presuming that the phrase simply sounds strange to their ears. And too often I found that when I said I listened to a book I ended up discussing or defending audio books rather than discussing the book itself. I will say I listened to a book only when I'm in the mood for the possibility of going there, or when there really is a difference between the reading and the listening of it. I do not accept the "conclusion" that there is any material difference between the two modes. I accept what Glenn's wife says, but she is referring to her specific circumstances in Special Education

Most people will say that they wrote a story, right? Do we care whether they wrote it by hand, scribbled it little by little on napkins as J.K. Rowling did, tapped it out in Morse Code, typed it on a typewriter, typed it on a computer using a word processing application, or dictated it? (In Japan the latest rage is to write novels on cell phones during the long train commutes. No doubt Twitter Novels are next!) Since it makes no material difference we simply say we wrote it. I'm suggesting that we can also say we read something without making unnecessary distinctions about how we read it. Should blind people disclose that they felt a story? Do blind people cater to the presumed ignorance of the popularity of Braille books? cool

2009/04/13 - 11:52pm

When Samaphore points out that there may be differences between live and filmed versions of plays, he will get no disagreement from me. My previous observation that "We make distinctions between seeing a live production or a movie of something. . ." was intended to convey that idea but probably would have done it better had I put a second "seeing" after the word "or." And it occurs to me that considerable differences may also exist between books and their recorded versions, mainly differences imposed through the process of "abridging" the books to minimize the time required in their hearing. This may be done only to novels, though. I record a lot for the reading-impaired, and what my listeners hear may not be word-for-word as printed. I no longer have much compunction about straightening out awkward or incorrect sentences in order to better convey the author's ideas -- limiting my favors in this regard mostly to nonfiction. It's my belated contribution to a publishing industry in which the quality of copy-editing and proofing has declined considerably. I've sometimes had to e-mail an author for help in clarifying a particularly obscure or garbled meaning that author or editor should have sorted out in the draft. In the end, listening to my version of a book may here and there give a better impression of its author's writing skills than will reading the thing itself.

2009/04/14 - 4:31am

I would also object to saying someone "read" a book if it was abridged. To me that would be as misrepresentative as reading CliffNotes alone and claiming you read the book.

Btw I also have done recorded readingfor visually impaired - all textbook, for which there is great need - but I was never called upon to edit the text.

So the harder question is if it is unabridged.

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