The audiobook debate: What “counts” as reading?

girl-160172_1280Earlier this week, a close friend (and one of my favorite book people – a true BBF) was moaning to me about her progress toward her Goodreads goal. Only two weeks left in December, and she’s still short 12 books! She’s planning to take a bunch of smaller books and graphic novels with her on her family holiday trip, so it’s likely she’ll make her total by the end of the year.

I’ve already passed my goal (okay, I did read a lot of graphic novels this year!), and as I was talking to my friend about some of the books that pushed me over the top, numbers-wise, I mentioned Uprooted by Naomi Novik, one of my favorite audiobooks of the year. The conversation took a sudden and unexpected turn:


BBF: You count audiobooks?

Me: Yes. (Of course! I added in my head.)

BBF: But that’s not reading!

Me: Oh yes it is!

BBF: Nuh-uh!

Me: Yuh-huh!

We didn’t stick out our tongues at each other… but in terms of childish behavior, we came close!

So what is reading? What “counts”?

The primary definition of the verb “read”, according to, is:

to look at carefully so as to understand the meaning of (something written, printed, etc.):
to read a book; to read music.

Okay, that one focuses on the written/printed word. Here’s definition #2:

to utter aloud or render in speech (something written, printed, etc.):
reading a story to his children; The actor read his lines in a booming voice.

Hmm. That’s the act of reading aloud. When my son was younger, I read to him all the time, even up to age 12, when we read together such books as Eragon and The Hobbit. I had never read Eragon before, and as I read it to my son, I was reading it for myself as well.

But back to the original question: Is listening to a book the same as reading a book? Do your eyes have to be involved in order to have read something? What about someone who’s vision-impaired? Using a Braille book seems to obviously be reading… but what if they don’t know Braille? What if they can only enjoy books that they listen to? Does that count as reading?

I’ve become a big fan of audiobooks in the past few years, so my take on the issue is pretty clear-cut. For me, whether I’ve used my eyes or my ears, my brain is certainly involved, and either way, I’m absorbing a story, ideas, plotlines, themes, and more.

I suppose I’d be in favor of a more expansive definition of reading, along the lines of:

Using one’s senses to take in the content of a book.

(Okay, let’s agree to exclude taste and smell from the above! I love the smell of a bookstore, but sniffing books definitely isn’t reading! And I don’t recommend eating them either.)

Of course, as I probably should have said earlier, it doesn’t actually matter what anyone else thinks when it comes to Goodreads stats. I’ve seen people argue about all sorts of things “counting” as real books, such as novellas, graphic novels, and re-reads. I take a pretty lenient approach with myself: If I feel like I’ve read something, then I have! And that includes all of the above.

Yes, in my opinion, if I’ve listened to an audiobook, then I’ve read the book. Period.

Where do you stand on the issue? Are audiobooks books? Does listening “count” as reading? And would you (or do you) include audiobooks in your list of books read in a year?

Share your thoughts, please!


33 thoughts on “The audiobook debate: What “counts” as reading?

  1. A very interesting topic for debate! I am one of those people who count audiobooks as reading – I think a story experienced from start to finish is by my definition a book read. I always say I have read The Hobbit, but actually my dad read it aloud to me as a child – I still visualised the story and made it my own. I’m curious to see other people’s opinions on this!

    • “A story experienced from start to finish” — I like it! I think my son would definitely say he read all of the Harry Potter books, even though he listened while I read them to him. 🙂

  2. I completely agree. You still know the plot, characters, themes and main take away from listening dont you, so it counts. Also, some books I think are better as an audiobook. For instance I just listened to Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari. He narrated it as well and it was hilarious. In fact, I just got a new audible credit and I am shopping for an audiobook right now!

    • Ooh, I love Audible credits! I agree, some books really are better listened to. I’m loving a mystery series right now, and after four books, I don’t think I could read the printed version. I’ve become so hooked on the different voices the narrator uses for the recurring characters!

  3. Without a doubt I count reading aloud or listening to audiobooks. The only thing I dont count is if I reread a book in the same year (Dumplin` and Ready Player One). As long as i spent the time to listen or read with my eyes the book I will count it. I use to stress about the GR Goal but I lowered my goal to 25 and blew past it, then uped it to 50 and now I`m passed it. The little hurdles made me read more.

    Great topic though. Can`t wait to see what other think.


    • Interesting — like you, I don’t think I’d count the same book twice in the same year, but I definitely count re-reads when they happen in different years or phases of my life.

  4. Audiobooks definitely count as reading! You are absorbing a story either way, & that’s the truly important part. Personally, I tend to read over listen. It just works better with my life. But there are certain books that I feel I understand better through listening. I listened to Pride and Prejudice, & I think hearing the sentences made the grammar/wording much less confusing. I am also a huge fan of books turned into audio-dramas. Do you have any opinions on those?

    • I listened to all of the Jane Austen books via audio this year, and I have to agree with your comments about P&P. Especially with Emma — I think I appreciated it so much more as an audiobook than when I read it in print. Something about the skill of the narrator, I think — I’d just never realized how totally laugh-out-loud funny the book is! I haven’t actually listened to any audio-dramas yet, although I do have a couple in my queue. Are there any in particular that you recommend?

      • I have a lot from Focus on the Family Radio Theatre. A few of my favorites are: The Chronicles of Narnia series, Les Miserables, Little Women, and Oliver Twist. I don’t know of any audio drama companies that produce ADs for more recently pubished works. Most of these were gifts from my Grandfather though, so maybe I’ll ask if he has any recommendations for other AD producers.

  5. Love audiobooks and definitely count them as stories ‘read’. I have both audio and paper books going at all times but when the eyes are tired, driving in the car or doing chores and errands, audiobooks are wonderful. I even have a headband earbud that I use when I go to bed. If I fall asleep, just hit rewind in the a.m.

    • That’s great, Pauline! I can’t listen to audiobooks when I’m sitting still or lying down, but I love them when I’m walking or driving. They’ve become a big, important part of my life by now!

  6. I agree! To me, audiobooks definitely count as reading. I mean, you are using your ears instead of eyes but you still absorb the story. Except for your own voice reading inside your head, you have someone else’s (that sounded really creepy suddenly). I have never understood why some people don’t count it as reading.

    • I don’t really get it either — although for my friend who disagreed with me on this, she’s never actually listened to a whole audiobook, even though she’s a totally avid reader of print books. Maybe those who don’t “count” them just haven’t given them a shot?

  7. Audiobooks certainly count for me! If I have listened to it, it doesn’t make sense for me to then go read it in the regular fashion for it to “count”.and if it doesn’t count, I suppose visually impaired people who listen to audiobooks haven’t read a thing. I think that the people who quibble over things like including audiobooks on Goodreads must not have a lot of fun reading to begin with. Cheers 🙂

  8. I think listening to audiobooks counts as “reading’ since you are experiencing the story, absorbing the information, and otherwise engaging with the text. For some reason we seem focused on experiencing things visually or textually, but I think other cultures that transmitted stories orally or read to each other aloud more (we seem to do this mostly for children now, like listening to a story is something adults don’t do) would find our print-based culture strange.

    Anyway, the Goodreads challenge is for fun. The only reason I could think of for an audiobook not to “count” is if you were trying to challenge a reader to become more engaged with print, with the assumption that audiobooks won’t be available for every text so you want to help him/her to become more comfortable reading plain text.

    There also seems to be an assumption here that listening to a book is easier than reading it, which is intriguing. I know that audiobooks are used to encourage reluctant readers or help readers who might not be reading at grade level. But…I actually find it easier to absorb information and follow a story if I am reading it rather than listening to it. It’s easier for me to concentrate solely on the text and easier to reread, skim, take notes, etc. I control the experience more if I’m reading the text. So I think we can’t really assume that listening is taking the easy way out. Listening is merely a different way of experiencing a text; it’s not necessarily a better or a worse way.

    • Hmm, good point about oral traditions, and how storytelling seems so pigeon-holed for children these days. I agree, too, about listening being a different way of experiencing a text, not necessarily an easier way. I do have a hard time focusing sometimes when I’m listening, and I’ll end up replaying sections if they were complicated or if my mind wandered. (I’ve learned by now to pause the story if I’m driving and need to find parking — my brain apparently can’t handle searching for a space and concentrating on a story at the same time.)

  9. I don’t understand why people don’t count them. It’s not like you watched the movie and then counted it or you read spark notes and counted it. You’re getting the full written word and experiencing the story. It’s definitely reading. I can’t listen to them because I tune out so it isn’t even like I’m saying they count because I like them. I actually don’t like audiobooks at all. I do wish that listeners would read some of the time because so much can be gained by reading new words and seeing it, but listening counts as reading in my opinion.

    • Most people I know who listen to audiobooks also read print books — just different media for different times/situations. As an audiobook fan, it really shocked me to hear that some people don’t consider them reading — I certainly do!

  10. I’m not an audiobook listener, so I can’t really speak on the subject with such confidence. My issue with audiobooks is that I can’t focus on listening someone read to me–I tend to tune them out (a bad childhood habit?) and then once I focus back in on the words, I forget what had happened earlier. So while I might not count audiobooks for myself, if others find they can listen and concentrate, I don’t see why they wouldn’t count. Just my two cents!

    • Thanks for sharing! Funny, as a kid, I couldn’t listen to people reading without falling asleep… but I feel like I’ve gotten better at focusing on audiobooks now that I’ve been doing it for a few years. 🙂

  11. There is absolutely no question in my mind, audiobooks = reading! I’m a librarian. When we run the Summer Reading Program for kids in the summer, if a child listened to an audiobook, it’s reading. Graphic novels count as well. I’m not sure why people get so hung up on how short or long a book is. Or even on numbers at all. A book can be amazing and only be 30 pages (picture books!) and it can be crap an be 600 pages. Reading about story, and using your brain to understand the story, whether it’s read to you or you read it on your own. Whether there are pictures or not.

  12. Oh, for the love… YES IT COUNTS! I agree that what other people thing “counts” is really irrelevant, but these debates still come up. Debating is not a bad thing, I just have a really hard time understanding the *other* side when it comes to this particular debate. As an avid reader who sometimes doesn’t have the time to read print books, audiobooks are such a great way to read (yes, read!) more stories during times I can necessarily sit still. I count everything for my yearly GR challenge, even pictures books and I really don’t care if anyone has an issue with that. My goal was waaaaaay higher this year (and will be next year) because those are a type of book I am reading at this stage in my life. So my goals reflect the types of books I plan to be reading — I sure as heck wouldn’t set a 250 or 300 book goal if I were only reading novels. Sorry if this got a little negative — we should all *count* our books however we want and that is that!

    • Very true — it’s so individual! I was just so surprised to learn that this is even an issue. I tend not to do many challenges, but I do like the Goodreads annual challenge, mostly because it’s just for my own satisfaction. Like you, my goal reflects what I expect to read, so I always push the number higher to allow for graphic novels, kids’ books, etc.

    • I think I’m realizing that it’s people who don’t like or have never listened to audiobooks who someone think they’re not “real” books. To me, it’s definitely reading!

  13. Although I’ve never listened to an audio book, I would definitely count it as reading. Think of all the time teachers read to their classes. I’m sure each student would count it as a read too!

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