Audiobooks vs written books

5C59DD6E-3A03-438F-A0ED-3383EA40415AIs it fair that audiobooks play second-tier to their print (and let’s include ebook forms and say written) cousins? People love audiobooks. Not just in that sense of “oh I love reading, but with my job and the kids and everything I just don’t have the time to read any way near as much, and it’s great to have an audiobook in the background while I get stuff done” – I mean, loving audiobooks in the “this is my favourite storytelling experience” kind of way.

But there’s an innate snobbishness about audiobooks. That they’re somehow less “worthy” than their written counterparts. Even if you’re comparing the same book on both mediums. Like audiobooks are a lower, dumbed-down equivalent. Do you feel that’s fair?

I love audiobooks. Not as much as written, as it goes. There’s something truly special about hearing your own “voice” as you cascade into a world constructed entirely out of those strange marks on the page. That’s the funny thing about written stories. It’s a shared accomplishment between the reader and the author. Okay, in practical terms the author has to do all the heavy lifting, but the creativity part is shared. That’s quite true for audiobooks too, but just a tiny bit less so for me. An actor or narrator is making some of the decisions about character voices, pace, and tone, for me. That’s not always a bad thing, but when you get to make those decisions yourself, the world you create in your mind is somehow a little more significant I find.

But wait a minute. Those of us who author novels don’t call ourselves “story writers” do we? At least, not usually. Generally, we call ourselves “story tellers.” And that’s important. The print book came before the audiobook, sure. But the art of telling a story -that is, actually gathering around a stage or a campfire or a commune or a family living room and telling a story, to others, out loud: that’s the oldest form of story there is. The best stories that got past down over time weren’t necessarily the ones with the best story. They were the ones that were told the best. So don’t knock that medium, it’s the oldest and longest-lasting we’ve had.

But to bring things a few thousand years ahead to the present time: Does listening to an audiobook count as consuming a book, or is it “cheating” somehow? Sure, it’s different to reading, but I think it’s wrong to see it as a much lower form because of it.

Scientists who study linguistics and communication say that for most (but not all) of us, we retain more information if we read it as opposed to just hearing it. But that fact doesn’t help give us an objective judgement on whether an audiobook is better or worse than a written book, it’s just that they’re different. And only marginally so.

So is the idea that audiobooks are inferior to the written word? No. No. A thousand times no. The medium doesn’t really matter. But the story? Yeah, the story matters.

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