I have had friends tell me before that they have “read that book,” and then proceed to talk about the voice work done by the narrator. My immediate response is to cringe, and sarcastically throw up air quotes like I’m raising a very tiny, and crooked, roof. My gut reaction, as a reader, is that reading is a task performed with your eyes, and if you are listening to another person read to you, you just aren’t reading.
Then, as a writer, I have to pause and think logically. I write because I have a story inside me that must get out. I publish because I want to share that story with others. How people choose to consume that content shouldn’t matter to me so long as they consume it, and, to a much lesser extent, I get paid.
The writer in me disagrees with the reader in me, so I turn to the tie-breaking side: the teacher. Unfortunately, this is where the waters get even more murky.
When dealing with students we talk about phonological awareness as one of the factors that determines literacy, or ability to recognize and repeat sounds of the language. In this aspect, audiobooks would have an advantage over print because you are hearing the words pronounced correctly (assuming the narrator is any good).
However, we also judge students on other skills, like being able to recognize “sight words” (common words that anyone should be able to recognize) and their ability to sound out unfamiliar words. In these two skills, audiobooks have little benefit.
The best answer is to say that audiobooks have their place and so do print books. Certainly we use reading aloud regularly with children (especially with younger children who are learning to read), and even with middle school students this is a common and useful strategy. But when it comes to real-world application, their boss certainly isn’t going to read their employee manual or emails to them (although as the technology improves, text-to-speech makes this a possibility).
I go back and forth on this issue a lot, but I think ultimatley it comes down to a question of intention. If you intend to “read” a good story for the literary or entertainment value, then I don’t see why you can’t dive into the world of an audiobook with as much fervor as print, and so long as the writer still gets paid, he can rejoice in another willing mind to paint his world into.
But with children, we need to avoid letting them depend heavily on audiobooks. I would like to believe that no amount of technological innovation will ever make the ability to read unnecessary [NOTE TO SELF: Future blog post?], and so being able to listen to someone else read will not be able to replace good ol’ fashioned reading.