Like many adults these days, I struggle to find time to really immerse myself in a book. I often attend my beer and book club without quite having finished the month’s selection, or end up powering through the weekend before. But some members, who have equally busy lives, manage to finish every book on time. They swear by audio books, listening to them in the interstitial spaces of life — while driving or folding laundry, for instance — something they just can’t do with print or e-books.
Audio books have ranked as the fastest-growing book format since 2013, per the Association of American Publishers. Despite their popularity, though, I’ve just never felt compelled to go that direction. After reading printed books for so long, I worry that listening to audiobooks would feel way outside my comfort zone.
But is listening to books really all that different from reading them? In other words, do audiobooks “count” as reading? Experts say there’s no clear-cut answer, but you might consider opting for one medium over the other depending on what and why you’re reading, as well as your own personal preferences.
Listening to an audiobook activates the brain network specialized for auditory processing, while reading a printed book activates the network involved in visual processing, explains Matthew Traxler, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis. Reading and listening to a book may engage different brain pathways, he tells Mic, but most psycholinguists (they study language the psychological and neurobiological aspects that allow humans to process language) agree that the “mental machinery” involved in the higher-level understanding of a narrative, plot, and so on, is the same regardless of how you consume the book.
From a neurological perspective, then, reading and listening to a book have quite a bit of overlap. But does one facilitate greater comprehension than the other? Beth Rogowsky, an associate professor of education at Bloomsburg University, sought to investigate this inquiry in a recent study. Her team randomly assigned adult volunteers to three groups. One listened to excerpts of a nonfiction book about World War II; another read the excerpts from an e-reader; and a third read and listened to the excerpts simultaneously. The volunteers then took a comprehension test. Rogowsky and colleagues saw no significant differences in the scores among the three groups.
But Rogowsky notes that her study looked only at the comprehension that resulted when people read and/or listened to the material one time through, not when they tried to study it at a deep level. In other words, her research suggests that at least when it comes to consuming material in a relatively passive manner, it doesn’t really matter whether you read or listen to the book. “If you want to build long-term memory and increase comprehension, it’s all about effort,” she says.
Traxler agrees. According to one hypothesis, “things are more memorable when you have to work a little bit in order to process the stimulus,” he says. But generally speaking, reading does require more active engagement than listening. “Listening can be much more passive,” which is readily apparent by how much easier it is to multitask when tuning in to an audiobook. You might set out to wash dishes and decide you might as well listen to your audiobook in the meantime, but when you read, even if you’re also, say, listening to music, reading is “really [your] primary task,” David Rapp, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, tells Mic.
Different mediums might also be better-suited to different genres. For narrative texts, like novels, whether you read or listen to the book probably doesn’t matter all that much. But for expository, technical text, “the average person is better off with printed information,” Traxler says. Understanding dense material often requires revisiting it, and it’s much easier to flip back and forth between pages then it is to scrub through an audio track. For the most part, “spoken information is very ephemeral,” Traxler says. “It’s there, and it’s gone.” You can also easily annotate pages in a way you can’t really do with an audio track.
As the way we read evolves, though, Rapp wonders whether the increase in audiobook consumption might shift how books are written. “I think authors who have audiobooks aren’t writing for audio listeners,” he says. While many audiobooks already use a different voice or actor for each character, perhaps more of them could employ this technique, as well as others that help keep listeners oriented, like reminding them of characters and past events, à la podcasts like Serial.
Whether you comprehend and retain more information from reading or listening to a book also comes down to personal preference. If you really dig listening to an audiobook while lounging at the pool, you’re more likely to while away the hours absorbing it. “The more time you spend engaged in material, the more you learn, the more you retain,” Traxler says.
All of this is to say that, even if I had listened to the audiobook version of my book club’s most recent selection, that would have still “counted” as finishing the book. In fact, I might even try listening to next month’s selection. But given my lifelong love of the ritual of sitting down and leafing through a book, I have a hunch that I might get more out of the old-fashioned way, even if I might not finish in time.
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