The latest Sword and Laser podcast includes a very well-framed discussion of a simple, relevant question: is listening to an audiobook of a novel the same thing as reading the novel? This subject apparently began as a debate on Goodreads, resulting in a Sword and Laser straw poll, which revealed that a plurality of people (46 percent) believed that they were “both equally valid, but different.” Another 39 percent believed the were essentially the same, while a small minority (15 percent) answered that they were different.
I tend to agree with the plurality: the two media are equally valid, but different. The differences, in my mind, are related to style and the subjective impact of a book on each particular reader. The existence of a third-party audio narrator necessarily adds another layer between author and reader, and the narrator’s audio interpretation of the text is just that: an interpretation. The narrator’s choices regarding tone, inflection, accent, volume, pace, and rhythm create a subjective interpretation of the book that belongs to neither the author nor the reader. Does this affect the listener’s ability to absorb the essence of the work? No. Is it a difference substantial enough to argue over? No, probably not, particularly if the narrator is any good (and the talent level of the particular audio reader makes a huge difference).
I’ve only recently started listening to audiobooks regularly, through Audible.com. I spend a lot of time in the car, so listening to audiobooks effectively doubles my reading time. But I have to admit, I generally avoid listening to serious or heavy novels. I save the stuff I really care about for print, both because I’m old fashioned and prefer it, and because reading comprehension is an issue for me with audiobooks: unlike with a paper book or ebook, if your attention wanders and you miss a line in an audiobook, you’ve got to scrub the file back, which can be difficult when you listen in the car. In a book you’ve got the text right in front of, ready to be read and re-read in a tired haze ad nauseum while you wonder how tired you’ll be the next morning.
What do you think? Do you listen to audiobooks? Are they the same? Different?