Audiobooks Are Not Cheating

GalleyCat pointed out The New York Times article Your Cheatin’ Listenin’ Ways (also mentioned on TeleRead this morning). It’s not the first time an article about audiobooks in The New York Times has set me off. I continue to be dumbfounded by peoples reactions. I’m even more disturbed by the people in the article who listen to audiobooks an feel guilty about it. What’s wrong with people?

In general I don’t feel the need to defend myself on this, but it seems many audiobooks listeners feel some sort of shame, so I guess I will. Listening to an unabridged audiobook is not cheating. Listening to an unabridged audiobook is reading a book. The majority of books I consume are in audio form. When reading paper book I sometimes find that I don’t remember the last few pages and have to reread them. This happens much less often when listening to audiobooks (and when it does I do backtrack and listen again). I also don’t have the luxury of doing just one thing at a time. I have responsibilities to my family, my writing, and my job. I was only getting six hours of sleep before the new baby. When am I supposed to read? I do have a number of print books I want to read but they have a long waiting period before I can get to them. Even once I do it often takes months for me to get through them. I’ve had John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War in my queue for a while and I’m elated to find out yesterday that it will be available on audio soon.

Most importantly, I’m thirty and my eyes are not in good shape. They aren’t going to get any better. I already have separate reading/computer glasses and my eyes have basically shut down due to eye strain multiple times.

The reality is, there’s very little difference between listening and reading. According to The New York Times article:

“If the goal is to appreciate the aesthetic of the writing and understand the story,” said Daniel T. Willingham, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Virginia, then there won’t be much difference between listening and reading. “The basic architecture of how we understand language is much more similar between reading and listening than it is different.”

I know this is true. When I’ve re-listened to audiobooks I’ve been amazed at how much of the story I remember word for word.

My wife and I have been listening to Harry Potter on audio since before book three. Listening together is tougher now then it was then, so it’ll probably take a year to get through the new one, but it’s wonderful to be able to enjoy books with my wife in this way. Currently I’m working to instill a love of audiobooks in my children. I’ve found some great stuff for them on (which is where I get most of my stuff as well). I love reading to my kids, but I also enjoy experiencing a story with them, and just enjoying it. I feel no shame in any of this.

Ron McLarty wasn’t able to get The Memory of Running published in print until after the audiobook was available and people heard it. Numerous authors are releasing free serialized audiobooks, many for otherwise unavailable works. I assume they consider the medium valid. Feel free to comment whether you agree or disagree. I’d like to hear what others think.

7 thoughts on “Audiobooks Are Not Cheating”

  1. Jay,
    Your rant on audio books did not fall on deaf ears. So when can I expect your blog to come out on audio? ;-)

  2. My wife and I listened to all seven Harry Potter novels on CD. I’ve listened to dozens of unabridged novels on CD; everything from Orwell’s 1984 to Tolkien’s entire Lord of the Rings trilogy to William Gibson’s Virtual Light, Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October and Carl Hiaasen’s Nature Girl. I’m currently listening to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (26 discs!).

    To me, audiobooks aren’t cheating. In fact, I find the “painting by numbers” analogy is ridiculous. If anything, a good narrator allows me to get more out of the book than I would have by reading the ink and paper version. The words are all there and they’re all making it to my brain; why should it make a difference whether I’m listening to them or reading them on the page?

    Actually, there is a difference: I frequently remember more detail from audiobooks than I do from similar print novels. Go figure.

    Finally, I’m sure authors like J.C. Hutchins and Scott Sigler are delighted to know that the thousands of fans who listened to novels like 7th Son and Infection (neither of which is currently available in print form) were “cheating”.

  3. This is like so many other knocks on podcasting, audiobooks, etc. The literati wants to preserve the status quo. They fear any change that threatens their position as taste-makers. I love how they had to get a “ognitive neuroscientist” to validate the fact that it’s okay to listen to books. Amazing.

    We will sweep away the non-believers in a wave of mass enjoyment. Power to the customer to choose what they want, regardless of format and schedule.


  4. Thanks everyone for the comments.

    Paul: You know, I swear there used to be a service that would run your blog through text-to-speech conversion for just that purpose, but I can’t find it now.

    KJToo: Nice to hear other families are enjoying HP the same way. I think it’s great. I actually think LotR works better in audio. To me it reads like it was meant to be read aloud. Sounds like we’re pretty similar in our take on audiobooks.

    Scott: There definitely is a sense of “how dare you” about people enjoying the same thing in different ways. The thing that bothered me most was that folk listening to audiobooks felt embarrassed by it. Reading isn’t meant to be a workout for the eyes! Keep up the good work.

  5. So glad to hear that someone else loves audio books too…
    I worked for Recorded Books for quite awhile and over the years have built up quite a collection. I always buy the Library Unabridged Editions which cost around $100.00 each. Recorded Books is the leader in the industry, and their products are top of the line.

    I have collected so many I have started selling them in my store at

    For anyone who is interested, please look at my booth:

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