An argument is emerging on BookTok. For those unfamiliar, BookTok is a subsection of the social media platform, TikTok, which, along with other reading communities across social media platforms, is managing to make an impact in the commercial publishing world. But more on that at the end.
The argument revolves around the question, “does listening to an audiobook count as reading?”
The obvious answer is, “yes, of course it does. What a silly question.” And while I will quickly defend this position, what is more interesting than the question is why this question is being asked, and argued, and why this continuing debate is harmful to accessibility and the “social reading” community.
A Brief Defense of Audiobooks as Reading
The easiest way to get lost in this debate is to delve into semantics, but here we go.
The primary defense is that stories predate written language. Is the consumption of ancient stories as they were consumed initially not reading? The nay-sayers easily say “nay”— this was not reading, this was listening to a story.
What about linguistically, at least in the western tradition? The Attic Greek word for reading is ἀναγιγνώσκω, which when parsed means, “I read aloud”. Uses of this word from Ancient Greek texts clearly use this word to describe people reading aloud. Therefore, the Ancient Greek concept of reading was an auditory experience. I’ve heard or read a few theories for why this was the case, but couldn’t verify any of them. But the first one is fun.
Regardless, silent reading (the predominant form of reading today) was not the norm. Cicero, for all his faults, advocated for accessibility in this regard. In Tusculanae Disputationes, Cicero comments that those who are deaf can access poetry by reading silently. Despite that it was against the norm, he pointed out that people unable to participate in the “norm” should still have access to poetry.
There’s much more to the history of reading, including St. Augustine lampshading how strange it was for his mentor, St. Ambrose, to silently read (Confessions, 6.3.3). The point is that the method of reading has changed, but the act of consuming an oral or written text has not.
Reading is reading, whether deciphering a tablet, silently reading a book, or listening to that book read by another (in-person or via an audiobook). To say otherwise is absurd, ableist, and dangerous.
Ableism and the Literary World
I was in undergrad when the first Kindle was released, ushering in what many thought would be the downfall of “the book”.
And to be clear, I was part of the many. I had recently chosen the path of English major and so tied my existence to books. I believed that this would be the death of bookstores and would create a world in which there was no content control, meaning the literary world would be flooded by books that were plucked from the darkest depths of fanfic.
To make matters worse, I, as a visually impaired person, refused to recognize that this was the best thing to happen to visually-impaired accessibility. No, I took pride in my “ability” to read the tiniest print despite having to read at a much slower pace and probably doing more harm to my eyes. Meanwhile, I hated reading in public because having to hold the book so close to my face led to bullying. So when the means to increase text size to as large as you want came along (without having to carry around large, multi-volume large-print books), I should have been ecstatic. Instead, I bought into the misconception that the physical book (romanticized in every way) was all that mattered.
Cicero would have been ashamed.
I am not saying that those who decried the end of bookstores, or who believed that the only way to consume a book is to hold it in your hands, to flip the pages, to smell that “book smell” are inherently ableist. However, clinging to traditionalism that flies in the face of the amazing leaps in accessibility created by recent technology is ableist.
For the record, I still prefer physical books to digital ones, and it makes no sense.
The same applies to audiobooks. Saying that audiobooks isn’t reading means that you are excluding those who rely on them from being a “reader”, which is an important identity-marker for many.
But why has this debate arisen?
Social Reading has Become Competitive Reading
Again returning to antiquity, reading (aloud) has a social component to it. Whether for entertainment or religious purposes, people gathered to listen to others read. When reading became a more independent act, people gathered to talk about books. Book clubs have been around for decades. Those of us obsessed with reading like to engage with others of the same passion. And like everything else, the Internet delivered 750V to the reading community.
Suddenly, the world was your book club. Not only this, but book reviews spilled out from the tight pages of newspapers. Online book reviews turned to video book reviews, with people amassing thousands of followers on YouTube.
But before we continue, there is one more piece to the puzzle. At the same time that ebooks were gaining popularity, Goodreads was launched (although it didn’t become as big as it is until Amazon acquired them in 2013). Goodreads attempted to take a platform for reviewing books and transform it into a social experience, where people could share with their network which books they are reading, or have read, or plan to read. This evolved into book-tracking, where readers could easily keep track of how many books they read in a given period.
Enter competitive reading. Those who created video content about books (called BookTubers) built into their identity the fact that they read a lot, with book hauls, and Goodreads trackers to back up this fact. Not only have BookTubers grown in popularity over the last decade (particularly among YA, Sci-fi, and fantasy readers) but they gained attention from publishers, who would send them ARC (advance reader copies) of anticipated books so the BookTuber could help promote the book. This translated into faster growth of their channels, which in the influencer economy translates to more money.
You may be asking
What does this have to do with audiobooks?
It comes down to this:
The more books you read, the more impressive your Goodreads tracker. The more impressive your Goodreads tracker, the more attention you can get from followers and publishers. The more attention, the more opportunity for profit.
Not only have audiobooks further opened the doors of accessibility to those unable to consume either physical books or ebooks, but platforms such as Audible allow you to adjust the listening speed. For example, I read audiobooks at anywhere between 1.25x and 1.8x speed (depending on narrator). I don’t do this to read faster (I do it because I find normal speed too slow), but the consequence is that I read faster.
Those who want to participate in the competitive sport of social reading, but value physical books as their preferred way of reading, or can’t afford services like Audible have taken umbrage with others calling audiobooks reading because they see it as “cheating”, as if “real reading” requires more work than “just listening”.
And this would all be absurd and not worth my time writing about or your time reading about, however, as I said at the start--
Conclusion: Publishers are Paying Attention
Publishers are not just looking to influencers for marketing purposes. There is suggested evidence that they view the opinion of those with a large following as indications of what they should be publishing. If the market is influenced by ableist trends (clinging to tradition) or competitive trends (prioritizing speed), then this can alter the nature of books.
I don’t write this to be alarming. And I don’t mean to suggest that BookTube or BookTok is bad. However, I do think the competitive nature of reading is getting out of hand, and publishers are seizing the opportunity, leading to a shift in their focus from great books to quick-consumable books. Even the idea of “a debate on BookTok” sends a signal to publishers (not that they need the reminder) that controversy sells.
Meanwhile, however you have read this,
Thanks for reading!