By Sean Zucker –
New technology has often focused on a core principle of trying to make consumers’ lives easier. From washing machines to microwaves and electric toothbrushes, almost every advance is designed to save time and sweat. With more time than ever on our hands, at least theoretically, many have turned to comforting leisurely activities like reading. But that begs some bigger questions: should we read stories like your forefathers or listen to stories like your forefather’s forefathers? And does the difference matter?
For traditionalists, this conversation may seem to be getting ahead of itself. It’s not. Before the pandemic, Forbes reported that for the first time over 50 percent of Americans had listened to an audiobook. Add to that with one-in-five American adults now claiming they regularly consume audiobooks and its obvious the medium has hit the mainstream. True, they haven’t yet surpassed physical paperbacks in cultural relevance or popularity, but they’re growing fast.
Over the summer, the Association of American Publishers released its annual report on the U.S. book publishing industry. The four physical print formats of hardback, board back, paperback and mass market accounted for nearly half, 48 percent to be exact, of the industry’s overall revenue. When narrowed down specifically to consumer books, print formats represented over 74 percent of revenue. However, e-books were on their tails. Especially given the massive near 30 percent decline in sales bookstores have seen during Covid.
When referring to the report, The New York Times notes that audiobooks appeared unaffected, if not alleviated, by the pandemic. “Some categories, like digital audio, which has been one of the fastest-growing formats in recent years, seemed almost pandemic-proof, with a jump of 15 percent,” it added before highlighting the growing influence audiobooks are having on the next generation. “Downloaded audio for children grew by nearly 50 percent, as parents who are sheltering at home with children turned to audiobooks for entertainment.”
The benefits of audiobooks are clear. First off, they’re painfully convenient. They can be “read” while someone cleans, works out, walks or even drives. Unlike physical tomes, audiobooks don’t demand a listener’s constant and full attention. But this advantage, may also create one of the format’s largest drawbacks, as the main psychological difference between physical and digital books appears to be rooted in cognitive participation.
“The critical difference, for me, between reading and listening is that reading is something you do, where listening is something that happens to you,” opined Cody Kommers, the host of the Cognitive Revolution podcast. “Reading is an act of engagement,” he wrote in Psychology Today. “The words on the page aren’t going to read themselves, which is something they literally do in an audiobook. If you’re not actively taking in written information, then you’re not going to make progress on the book. Audiobooks, on the other hand, make progress with or without your participation.”
How does this causal relationship with the contribution impact comprehension of the source material? A 2016 study conducted by The Pew Research Center might hold some insights although their inconclusive.
The study involved ninety-one participants randomly positioned into one of three groups, each out which assigned portions of Unbroken, a nonfiction book about World War II by Laura Hillenbrand. The first group listened to the sections, the second read the same sections, and the third did both simultaneously. Afterwards, all participants were given a quiz designed to measure how well they had grasped the material. The score found no significant differences in comprehension between any of the groups – reading, listening, or reading and listening simultaneously.
A separate New York Times article also underlines how listening to books has proven to be an effective alternative for many who suffer from dyslexia. “They allow listeners to get the meaning while skirting the work of decoding, that is, the translation of print on the page to words in the mind. Although decoding is serious work for beginning readers, it’s automatic by high school, and no more effortful or error prone than listening,” it notes.
Is listening to audiobooks cheating? Maybe, but who cares. You can still enjoy the next page-turner without needing to turn any pages.