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Is Listening to an Audiobook the Same as Reading?

By Corey Atad | Miscellaneous | September 5, 2014 |

By Corey Atad | Miscellaneous | September 5, 2014 |

“I just read this really amazing book.”

“Oh yeah? Which one?”

“It’s called Nixonland. It’s about the political rise of Nixon from ‘64 through ‘72 when he got re-elected. It’s long, but so full of amazing information about him and the social and political movements of the 60s. You’ve got to read it.”

“That sounds great. Can I borrow it from you?”

“Unfortunately not.”


“It’s… Um… An audiobook, actually.”

“…Oh …Is that really reading?”


I don’t like audiobooks. Or at least, that’s what my brain tells me I should believe. Listening to someone read a book aloud isn’t the same as reading it, right? It can’t be. It flies against everything a good reader knows. Yet I now find myself an audiobook fan, excitedly building up a digital stack of books on tape to absorb. I feel queasy about it, but I can’t deny my enjoyment.

Listening is a completely different method of consumption from reading. Obviously. But it really is. I’m sure scientific research backs me up, but I can feel different parts of my brains being activated in each case. The passivity of listening to a narrator means the information being taken in doesn’t have quite the same sticking power. It’s also out of your control. When reading, you can go at your own pace, reread sentences or pages if you lose your bearing, or even skip ahead easily if you want. When you’re listening, you’re at the whim of the narrator. I find I’ll often get distracted for a second and miss something that was said, and it’s just too much of a pain to skip back and re-listen.

That’s probably why I find I can’t do fiction very well in audio form. I don’t want to miss anything when I’m taking in a fictional story. Non-fiction is a different game, though. That feels more like a lecture, and between school and podcasts, I’ve had enough exposure to that sort of thing. And so, the audiobooks I’ve been listening to recently are all non-fiction.

It started a few months ago when I started my big reading project: The History Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I thought it might help me go through the book faster if I could listen to sections in the car or on the subway. So I did what any good podcast listener will eventually do. I signed up for the Audible free trial and got the first third of that dense tome for free. Only, then I forgot to cancel my subscription. The next month I got charged and received a token for a free book. I didn’t even notice. And then another month. And a third, and finally I realized. I redeemed the three books, and then instead of canceling the subscription I decided to keep it.

Nixonland was the first of the audiobooks I listened to, and it was amazing. And long. Almost 40 hours, so totally worth it. I searched for more long books so I’d feel like I was getting bang for my buck. Over 10 hours at least.

Now I’m listening to A Spy Among Friends, about Kim Philby, one of the highest ranking British spies for 20 years, who turned out to have been a Soviet double-agent the entire time. It’s absolutely enthralling, and the narrator’s British accent is basically my favourite thing in the history of the world. After that I’ve got The Devil in the White City and The Invisible Bridge. Can’t wait to dive into those.

I’m not sure listening to audiobooks really counts as reading, but I’m getting a kick out of it either way.

And here’s where I get selfish. Got any non-fiction books you think are worth listening to, or a convincing case for a fiction audiobook? Maybe something fun, with a great narrator? Let me know! I’m making a list and I’m always on the lookout.

Corey Atad is a staff writer for Pajiba. He lives in Toronto.