When can you say you “read” something?

March 10, 2010 at 12:00 am 33 comments

I’ve been having some trouble with my eyes recently, which has caused me to take a look at other forms of reading. Most notably in terms of reading alternatives is the book on tape. While this undeniably makes the book more digestible and easier to take with you on the road (walking to work need no longer be time wasted not reading!), it also makes me wonder about what you’re actually doing when you listen to a book. Does listening to a book on tape really count as reading the book?

The short answer, to me, is no. Definitions of “reading” or “to read” that I’ve found are intrinsically bound up with the written word. “The cognitive process of understanding a written linguistic message.” “To interpret something that is written or printed.” “To look at and interpret letters or other information that is written.” All of these tie “reading” to the written word, which I interpret as something visual. I believe that having a “written linguistic message” necessitates having something spelled out (literally) on a piece of paper or screen that you then read from. Sight is paramount.

That said and despite my view on the matter, only one of these definitions specifically make a necessary connection between reading and viewing the written word. Two out of the three the definitions I quoted, just as examples, define “reading” not as “the act of seeing and understanding a written message,” but as the interpretation part only. I think it could be argued that “understanding a written linguistic message” could be accomplished without necessarily looking at the written linguistic message and thus “reading” could also be accomplished by gaining understanding through a recitation or other auditory form of the written linguistic message.

So where does that leave books on tape? I firmly think that listening to a book on tape is not reading. It is definitely gaining understanding of the book and even a first-hand knowledge of the plot, but, all the same, it is not reading. I would suggest the invention of a new verb that indicates that you the reader digested/enjoyed/understood the book but which takes the form of how you accessed the book out of the equation. “I read X” is what we now use to say you digested/enjoyed/understood the book, but it is a verb inherently suggestive of seeing and literally reading a text. Books on tape can provide the same levels of enjoyment and understanding, but they cannot truthfully use the verb “read.” With all the new technologies beyond the book on tape coming forward (“I Kindled Bleak House?), we need something new, although I’m not sure how to etymologically create it. Any suggestions?



Entry filed under: Musings and Essays. Tags: , , , .

Discussion Questions: Persuasion Discussion Post: Persuasion

33 Comments Add your own

  • 1. farmlanebooks  |  March 10, 2010 at 3:31 am

    Interesting discussion. I love listening to audio books and will say I’ve read a book if I’ve just listened to it. The same words are still entering your brain in the same order, so I’m not sure it is that different.

    • 2. Corey  |  March 10, 2010 at 6:49 am

      Thanks! I think saying you’ve read something if you’ve listened to it is the normal parlance, but I still think there is a big difference between sitting down and reading something (or battling through some lengthy tome) and listening to it. It is easier to digest in some ways when you’re listening to it, particularly when it comes to difficult books. And, as I argued, from an etymological perspective, “to read” does have a visual aspect to its definition. I do agree with you, though, that it is the same content getting to your brain, just in a different format. Clearly I’m divided on the subject!

      • 3. KT  |  March 10, 2010 at 7:39 am

        It’s so easy to zone out while listening and not even realize it! Plus many audio books of classics are abridged, so that puts another damper on the whole audio book experience. To me, deep down, listening to an audiobook rather than reading the book version feels a little like cheating — plus, my experience of that book is forever tied to the sound of that actor’s voice, which is a bigger problem than you might think at first.

        However, I agree with farmlanebooks that generally, both processes get the author’s words across to you in the same order. The oral story-telling tradition is much older than the visual one, so there is something to be said for continuity, I guess. And hey, if audiobooks are exposing more people to literature, they can’t be all bad!

      • 4. Corey  |  March 10, 2010 at 8:01 am

        Ah you put that all so well! In short, I really agree with you: Listening to an audiobook seems like the easy way out of reading something like Les Miserables or Ulysses and I just cannot reconcile that it is literally reading!

        I like your point about the tradition of oral storytelling, but, again, I think that is something different. You would never say you read any story that you heard around campfire; you heard that story or your learned that story. The result is the same (knowledge and/or understanding of the story), but it is absolutely not the same process. I guess it means that perhaps audiobooks are more historically appropriate for storytelling!

        And I also agree that reeling people into literature is always good, although there are definitely good and bad ways to accomplish this, which is a whole other debate. (I’m still divided about the efficacy of things like Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Twilight or even Harry Potter in terms of getting people interested in reading. Are they interested in reading or just interested in comic books or pretty vampires or wizardry?)

  • 5. Emily  |  March 10, 2010 at 3:53 pm

    “Reeling people into literature” smacks of the elitism you clearly harbor regarding literacy, literature, texts, and the ubiquitous, cultural reading done by every demographic throughout history. This includes most recent books such as ” ‘Twilight’ or even ‘Harry Potter’.” As if these stories are less because they are new. Because they appeal to a kind of age and personality you aren’t fond of? Do they seem “tweeny” in the blind and crippling need Twilight’s Bella has for a crush? This doesn’t seem to stack up to your idea of Literature. I offer you: the entire Romantic Era and Romeo and Juliet. The point is, that people are reading texts – spending their free time at home with a nose in a story of words, and talking to each other about it. That is literacy in action – that is dialogue of ideas that has only grown more ongoing and rich with technology and media.

    “Are they interested in reading or just interested in comic books or pretty vampires or wizardry?” How dare you use a the diminutivizing ‘just’ – as if the interest in the act or the interest in the subject matter can or should be separated. The act is only a skill – a means to an end. You don’t become socialized into the world of readers by having someone talk to you about how great Reading is, you are given books full of stories that interest you, and then, because you care, you keep reading, developing habits of mind that good readers have; good readers that appreciate reading to the extent they worry about if everyone loves the act of reading to the depth and extent they do.

    You owe, in part, all this brainy literary separatism and encyclopedic knowledge of canonical literary history, to the fact that when you were very young, you spent a summer vacation to the beach inside, fighting with your friend over whose turn it was to read the only Harry Potter copy they had with them.

    • 6. Corey  |  March 10, 2010 at 7:53 pm

      I disagree with your interpretation of my remarks in two main points: First, the accusation that I think newer books are categorically somehow “less” than older books is, as with many broad generalizations, untrue. My qualms about books like Twilight are mainly pertaining to issues of poor grammar and prose rather than when it was written or who is reading it. Some of my favorite books (Harry Potter included!) are recent publications. That said, everyone has their own personal preferences about what kind of books they enjoy (or don’t enjoy) and these opinions are just that–personal. This makes them extremely difficult to explain, quantify, or categorize. You like what you like regardless of publication date or genre.

      Second, of course I agree with you that it is terrific when anyone reads anything for pleasure. My earlier remarks were more concerned with these kind of books’ efficacy at creating sustained readers. It is wonderful that any book–Twilight included–can get someone who formerly hated even the idea of reading to willingly do so. But does this new reader actually care for the pastime or, as I said before, is his or her interest simply in the topic and not the format or process?

      (This leads into a discussion about if that even matters. Do people inherently need to like reading? I think it is an important value worth passing on, but I’m sure others would disagree.)

      As you say, perhaps an interest in the topic will propel further reading about it, but it may just as easily lead the reader into movies or TV or video games, none of which are inherently bad, but they do take the whole argument away from our purview or at least illustrate that the book did not create a reader.

      As to your evident disdain for “elitism” and “brainy literary separatism,” a favorite author of mine (incidentally, a contemporary author) once said that “elite” is a good word because it means above average. He then asked what the problem could possibly be in excellence or doing well. You can never make me feel in any way ashamed of my personal knowledge of books. I don’t believe I am any kind of expert in the field (or that I have anything close to an “encyclopedic knowledge of canonical literary history,” as impressive as that sounds), but I do know that I love to read, I love books themselves, and reading is by far my favorite thing to do when I have spare time. In those things I remain unshaken and I do not for a moment believe that there is anything to be ashamed of in being “elite” and well-read or in worrying about the future of reading.

      • 7. Britney  |  March 10, 2010 at 8:00 pm

        And my own qualms with Twilight are with regard to its subject matter and popularity – Edward is a stalker, but the books romanticize the idea that having someone break into your bedroom and later leave town without telling you that he’s leaving as being somewhat okay. And yes, I’ve read all four books in the series. Millions of young women are left wishing for their own Edward (and the Twilight books are hard to put down, as someone who has read all of them, so it’s easy to want your own Edward!), when all they have is an example of a really bad relationship.

      • 8. Corey  |  March 10, 2010 at 8:05 pm

        Indeed, I also have more serious concerns beyond the style issues I mentioned above. Thank you for bringing these up as the Twilight books are known for romanticizing some absolutely terrible relationship and gender behaviors, all of which is quite worrying!

      • 9. KT  |  March 10, 2010 at 10:02 pm

        Also, to respond to Britney: if a dude sneaks into my bedroom to watch me sleep, I’m calling the police. I don’t care how much he sparkles. :P

      • 10. Emily  |  March 11, 2010 at 6:43 am

        Corey – In continuing our conversation, which is no longer about audiobooks but could very easily come back around to them (see item 3):

        1) You’re right: I did wrongly latch onto assumptions and generalizations about your tastes based on scant textual evidence and misinterpretation.

        2) Oh, please. – I think it is so interesting you women know more about books than I ever will! Corey, I’ve been telling you for decades that I love you and your bookshelves. Don’t you know me at all? I have no problems with your being elite. I used the word “elitism,” which means something else . Additionally, you know full well what I’ve been doing with my life for the past year and a half, so don’t dare imply that you are the only one of us “worrying about the future of reading.”

        3) I think the most interesting and pertinent points lie in your third and fourth paragraphs: “Do people inherently need to like reading?” and creating readers, two issues about which I’d love to hear more ideas from you or other LT readers. How did you become the reader you are today?

      • 11. Corey  |  March 11, 2010 at 9:44 am

        Emily – Thanks for this.

        Considering the tone of your initial comment, I hope I can be forgiven for being defensive about “elitism” in my response. Since I have known you for many years and taking into consideration the many past conversations on the topic we have had, your first comment came as a huge shock to me. It made me ask the same question you now pose–“Don’t you know me at all?” Thus, you will, I hope, understand my shock and hurt and forgive any terseness in my response.

        Additionally, I in no way meant to imply that you do not care or worry about the future of reading. You clearly do care a great deal, as I believe we all do here at LT, and I am very sorry if you thought I could think or imply otherwise.

        As to item 3, we’ve got a discussion post cooking for later today or tomorrow so all readers can get in on discussing this very topic. It’s a great issue that I’d also like to hear more about from other LT readers, so I’ll save my meager thoughts on the matter for that post if it’s okay with you. :)

    • 12. KT  |  March 10, 2010 at 10:00 pm

      Whoa, whoa, whoa! First, let’s not start flinging around accusations of literary elitism at this blog as a whole, please, especially when I have three recently-read comic books sitting on my bedroom floor alongside Persuasion.

      To agree with Corey and Britney (surprise, surprise, I know), Twilight’s main problem is not that it is new, but that it is bad on so many levels. Worse than popular novels of the Romantic Era? Yes, and to prove it, I wrote a post comparing Twilight to a popular romantic-era novel that was considered trashy at the time. You can find it here: https://literarytransgressions.wordpress.com/2008/11/20/romance-and-forests-and-maybe-a-few-vampires/

      Lastly, one problem I see is that children may read Harry Potter or Twilight or even His Dark Materials or any other popular work and not continue with the socialization process you mentioned! I think that’s what was meant by “just” — with novels that popular, children may begin and end with the books or even the movies alone, and never expand their reading.

      • 13. Emily  |  March 11, 2010 at 5:25 am

        Katie! Thanks for a heads up on your “Romance and Forests” post – I especially loved the paragraph comparing the movie posters to “The Nightmare.”

        • 14. KT  |  March 11, 2010 at 7:47 am

          Oh, no problem :D I have read the book since then, but my views remain generally the same. Except, thanks to your last comment, I have spent the last few hours trying to think of any greater themes in Twilight! All I can come up with is that it is a messy and incomplete metaphor for converting to Christianity, which I suppose makes some degree of sense but only on a very broad level.

  • 15. Britney  |  March 10, 2010 at 7:56 pm

    I have mixed feelings about whether or not audiobooks count. If it weren’t for audiobooks, I would never have discovered Anne Fadiman (my library didn’t have a paper copy of Ex Libris!) and I would have missed having Jim Dale read Harry Potter to me, but at the same time, it’s much easier to zone out (or fall asleep) while listening to someone else do all the work. That said, I do think audiobooks have a place – just as most of us had our first books read to us by a parent or teacher (I never read Charlotte’s Web myself but my second grade teacher read it to me!), audiobooks can introduce us to writers and ideas we might never have picked up otherwise.

    • 16. Corey  |  March 10, 2010 at 7:58 pm

      Definitely. I was actually going to bring up the whole “parents reading to us as children” thing in the post but didn’t want to overload it. I think audiobooks and parents reading to their children kind of go into the same category of “reading, question mark?”

  • 17. Eva  |  March 11, 2010 at 6:20 am

    Hmmmm….I see your point that there’s a different physical process between reading a book and listening to it.

    I’m much more skeptical of the idea that an audio version is automatically easier, though.

    • 18. Corey  |  March 11, 2010 at 6:32 am

      Interesting! It seems to me that slipping on a pair of headphones and listening to a book is inherently easier than picking up a book and literally reading it. In terms of content, obviously there is no difference, but something about listening to the content instead of reading it often makes it easier to digest.

      • 19. Emily  |  March 11, 2010 at 7:23 am

        Britney, in an earlier post, was wondering if audiobooks “count.” This seems to be the underlying argument to all audiobook discussions (or am I just projecting my own psychoses?).

        Anyway, to that end:

        I thought audiobooks were total bunk lazy people who didn’t care about literature resorted to. And then, in my grad class on teaching literature to high schoolers, assigned to create a lesson plan for “The Great Gatsby,” I found myself in the situation of a lazy person who couldn’t muster up one rat’s ass for “The Great Gatsby.” I audiobooked it, and that audiobook totally changed my experience of Fitzgerald. Having the words processed auditorally as opposed to textually changed them into lyrical prose as opposed to slightly bulky sentences (And, as you might have noticed, I am not typically one to shy away from the bulky sentence.). It was also much easier to pick up on a lot of humor if you’re being read to by a talented actor. Great portions of “The Great Gatsby” are witty as Hell, with the traditionally underrated Daisy leading the way.

        I’ve kept the book on my ipod, and after listening to it twice straight through, have been listening to chapters at random for the past 4 months. G.G. is now one of my literary favorites. At this point, I need to insist that my experience of reading the book on audiotape is just as through and valid a read as someone who read the words in the paper book. Would you agree? Disagree?

        • 20. KT  |  March 11, 2010 at 7:44 am

          Actually, that’s a good point! I agree that your experience is certainly valid, but you were clearly a very active listener, and that’s not true of all audiobook listeners.

          Not to harp on the elitist thing, but one wonders if we’d be having the same argument about Nora Roberts on tape. How much active participation is there really in reading Nora Roberts as opposed to listening to her? (No offense to Ms. Roberts.)

          I think our readers are turning me around on audiobooks, by the way! One quick caveat about audiobooks, though — Emily, you mentioned that a ‘talented actor’ made you realize how funny Gatsby was, which makes sense, but it is also an example of how the actor’s interpretation affected your interpretation. A lesser actor may have had you coming away from the book with quite a different viewpoint.

        • 21. KT  |  March 11, 2010 at 8:09 am

          Whoops, that was meant as a reply to Emily’s “Gatsby” comment.

      • 22. Britney  |  March 11, 2010 at 6:12 pm

        Emily, that reminds me of the time I was supposed to read Pride and Prejudice in high school, but I knew it was supposed to be funny and I wasn’t finding it funny so I didn’t bother finishing it. Maybe I would have had more luck with the audiobook – after all, I’ve enjoyed a few film adaptations of the book. :)

        I don’t think audiobooks are for lazy people – there are many people who enjoy them while commuting or cleaning, and for some it’s the only time they have to enjoy a book – but I have a hard time staying awake when I’m listening to something instead of reading it. My level of engagement is completely different. I also have a hard time staying engaged with movies (my roommate has gotten to the point where she’s surprised if I didn’t fall asleep during a movie).

      • 23. Eva  |  March 12, 2010 at 1:02 am

        I don’t find that to be the case. Perhaps because when I read a hard copy book, I have a narrator in my head anyway? When I’m listening to an audiobook, I can’t skim the boring bits, and I usually end up devoting more time to the book than I’d spend on a hard copy. I think that extra time really allows my brain to pay more attention to details and what the author is doing. There’s no sense of ‘hurry up and finish this chapter,’ because I CAN’T hurry it up.

  • 24. Emily  |  March 11, 2010 at 9:33 am

    “How much active participation is there really in reading Nora Roberts as opposed to listening to her? (No offense to Ms. Roberts.)”

    So maybe it is the engagement of the reader/listener that marks a quality Reader, as opposed to how the text is interacted with ex: text; audio.

    • 25. Emily  |  March 11, 2010 at 9:36 am

      Making your reply align with the post you’re replying to is hard!

      • 26. KT  |  March 11, 2010 at 4:05 pm

        I know, right?

        And yes, I would say the amount of reader engagement rather than the medium is probably more indicative of the quality of the entire reading experience.

        This seems a bit like the debate among runners about which is better, running on a treadmill or running outside? Both essentially involve the same motions and the same benefits; though running on a treadmill is easier, treadmills bring running to a wider audience for the same reason. Maybe running outside is “better” for you, but who cares, so long as you’re running? ;)

  • […] 11, 2010 In the comments from yesterday’s post about audio books, one of our readers brought up the issue of the best ways to create readers and, […]

  • 28. Eva  |  March 12, 2010 at 1:05 am

    I think that people can ‘tune out’ while reading a hard copy at LEAST as much an audiobook. That’s what skimming was invented for!

    So I don’t think that reading a hard copy is ‘better for you’ than an audio version or that there’s something inherently more difficult and noble in paper. And I think the whole idea of audiobooks ‘not counting’ is a bit silly. ;)

    • 29. KT  |  March 14, 2010 at 9:08 pm

      Good point — I know I skim to get to the “good stuff” when reading a book I’m not particularly interested in. Certainly I wish I had an audiobook for Ivanhoe this week! :D

  • 30. On the Validity of Audiobooks « A Striped Armchair  |  March 15, 2010 at 4:51 am

    […] people debating whether they should ‘count’ as reading for years now, but a post at Literary Transgressions last week is what finally made me decide to write my own audiobook manifesto, as it were. (But […]

  • 31. Mish  |  June 15, 2010 at 2:20 pm

    I prefer visually reading, but consider listening to audio books as another method. I used to tease a friend whenever he said he read a book. I also knew that if it weren’t for the CD format, he’d never get a chance to enjoy literature because his hectic schedule only gives him time to do so while in the car.

    Among the definitions you say, “sight is paramount”, but what of those who are blind? They read through touch and/or sound. “I felt a great book” just doesn’t have the same auditory ring as “I read a great book”.

    The Oxford dictionary’s definition of “to read”:

    “Reproduce mentally or vocally written or printed words. Convert into intended words or meaning. Understand or interpret by hearing words or seeing signs, gestures, etc.”

    I found my here through Weekly Geeks. Interesting post.

    • 32. KT  |  June 17, 2010 at 10:29 pm

      Interesting, Mish! I can’t believe none of us thought to look in a dictionary for the answer :)

      I think the key to the problem is in the “understand or interpret” part of the reading definition. Actually, it’s for this reason that sometimes if someone asks me if I’ve read a certain book, I’ll say no if I feel like I didn’t understand or spend enough time thinking about the meaning of the book, despite having visually run my eyes down the page. Usually I zone out like that easier with audiobooks, but that’s not true for everyone.

      Also, welcome! Glad you found us through Weekly Geeks!

  • 33. Mish  |  June 17, 2010 at 11:04 pm


    Language is quirky that way. I zone out with audio books as well. They’re too much like music for in that they fall to the background. Even after listening to a book narrated by its author, who I really like, I had to go back and visually read it.


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