Consuming Books: Reading Vs. Listening

This morning I was browsing my Facebook timeline and stumbled on a post from one of my friends who posed a very interesting question. The question has to do with the wording we use to convey how we consume audio books. My friend pointed out that she’s noticing a trend, both with blind and sighted readers, where they will use the verb “listen” instead of “read”, as in “I just finished listening to that book” as opposed to “I just finished reading that book”, as if consuming a book via audio isn’t quite the same as reading it.

First, I’ll provide a bit of background into my own life as an avid reader. I learned how to read Braille when I was around four and how to write it not much later than that. I’ve always found reading Braille to be very easy and I’ve been reading books using Braille for about as long as I can remember. I remember the enjoyment I always felt going to my school library, browsing the many shelves of Braille books and being able to check out one or two books a week, which I always read quickly. Of course, there were many books, known as talking books, which were recorded on cassettes’ as well as on phonograph records. Talking books have been available for blind and visually impaired consumers to borrow since the 1930s, way before audio books became popular with sighted consumers. While I never hesitated to borrow a book on tape from my library, Braille was always my preferred medium and, when given a choice between Braille and audio, Braille was always what I chose.

As I’ve embraced new technologies the way I consume books has also changed. Nearly all of the books which I consume are done so audibly and not in Braille. There are several reasons for this and they don’t apply to all readers who are blind. First, most of the books which I want to read are just not available in Braille. While the National Library Service produces many Braille books there are simply more titles available in an audio format. Even then the amount of books produced by NLS, while I greatly appreciate the work that they do, is a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of titles available from other suppliers. Bookshare, another specialized library for people with print disabilities, offers over half a million books and that number continues to increase. Learning Ally is another specialized library which I’ve used for over 35 years, offers around 80,000 human-narrated titles. Of course, mainstream book suppliers such as the Kindle store offer millions of books, with more constantly being added. These specialized and mainstream suppliers offer a much greater selection of books than what I am able to borrow from my local NLS affiliate.

Some readers will no doubt want to remind me of the fact that we do have Braille display technology, which will work both with my computer as well as with my phone. This is certainly true and a Braille display would certainly allow me to read books from any of these suppliers using the same Braille code that I enjoyed using with books printed on paper. However, there are reasons which, for me, make this an impractical solution.

First, Braille display technology, while readily available for many devices, is often costly. As an example, Freedom Scientific’s most inexpensive Braille display, the Focus 14 Blue, costs $1295.00. At this time spending over a thousand dollars for a Braille display is just not something which I could easily do, considering it’s a device that I don’t truly need. However, even if a Braille display magically dropped onto my desk the fact is that I do a lot of reading either on the train or lying in bed. Reading with a Braille display on a moving train, no matter how portable, is just too awkward. When I’m lying in bed and wanted to read a book it’s just so much easier to do this with a small phone and would prove to be a bit less convenient if I added even a 14-cell display.

Anyway, back to the topic. My friend was pointing out that she has noticed that many people say they’ve listened to a book as opposed to reading it if the book was consumed in an audio medium, such as an audio CD or listening to it with synthetic speech using the Kindle app. However, this also makes me think of how we often use the word “read” when we actually have listened to the book.

This raises some interesting questions. When it comes to books, is it fair to consider it reading regardless of how it’s consumed? There are probably some sighted people who feel that the only way to truly read a book is to do so by processing the printed material visually. Of course, as blind people we know this is certainly not the case. All of us would agree that processing the information with our fingers would just as validly be considered reading as processing the information with our eyes and, in that instance, there is no controversy. However, the wording sometimes changes when we shift from print on a page to either a human narrator or a synthetic voice coming from a pair of speakers or from our portable phones and tablets. If I consumed a book by listening to it with an app such as Voice Dream Reader, am I wrong to say that I’ve read the book? Most blind people would say that I’m not and I would tend to agree with them.

However, let’s say we have an individual who is blind who never learned how to read Braille. There are some valid reasons for why they might not have been taught how to read and write in Braille, such as having neuropathy in their fingers which would prevent them from being able to distinguish the dot patterns. In such a case, this blind individual would only be able to consume books in an audible format. Considering this, would we look at that blind person who didn’t know Braille and conclude, if only to ourselves, that this person was illiterate. We might not say that to their face in the course of normal conversation but do we consider a blind person who doesn’t know Braille to be illiterate? If the answer to that question is yes then can we say that this blind person, not knowing Braille, has “read” a book when it was consumed by listening. If we say no, then why is it acceptable for me to say that I’ve read a book and my hypothetical blind person could not say that, just because I can read Braille and he cannot.

Let’s take this a step further and consider a fully sighted person who, for one reason or another, never learned how to read print. There’s no doubt that we would conclude that this person would be considered illiterate. Saying so is not meant as an insult but, in this case, is indisputable; someone who can’t read is illiterate. My hypothetical blind person might not have the ability to learn Braille and the sighted person could, with proper training, learn how to read print but, until that individual chooses to take classes in how to read, we would all agree that he’s illiterate. Given that fact, would we tend to disagree with the illiterate sighted person if he told us that he “read” a particular book by consuming it in an audible medium? Wouldn’t we think, “No, you didn’t really read that book, you listened to it.” If this is the case, then why is it OK for me, as a blind person who knows Braille, to tell people that I may have read the same book by consuming it in the exact same way but yet fewer people would think of challenging my word choices.

Admittedly, this isn’t the most important topic which should concern us. I don’t think about it all that much and it certainly doesn’t keep me up at night. However, I think these issues are important as it has really forced me to think about what we mean when we speak of what it means to be literate.


As an aside, the person who brought up this topic is one of the proprietors of Speeddots, which sells various tactile screen protectors for your Apple iDevice. They also sell various Bluetooth accessories as well as rugged lightning cables with a life-time warranty.

So, how do you feel about this? For you, does listening to an audio book qualify as reading it? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

One thought on “Consuming Books: Reading Vs. Listening

  1. Hi, I believe that Braille is equivalent to reading print and prefer this method for technical documents, reference material, and user manuals. I like listening to fictional books using NLS or Audible because panning with a 14 cell Braille display can get uncomfortable. Enjoying the content or becoming more informed is more important. I’m happy when anyone gets away from the TV and their phone just to enjoy a good book!

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