in Books

Books on Tape

I’ve never been much of a listener-to-books, but I could become one.

In college, after I decided it was okay to like Stephen King, I listened to several of his books on tape. My first exposure to “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” was through an audio book. I’ve also listened to some of Garrison Keillor’s books on tape, though this seems more natural.; Keillor’s tales are meant to be heard.

More recently, last summer I listened to two of Patrick O’Brian’s early novels on CD. I enjoyed them immensely. Listening to a book forces me to absorb the material at a slow and measured pace. It forces me to pay attention to detail.

At present, I am reading Dracula on CD, in my car, during my drives to and from work. It’s fun! (It’s a fine thing that I’m listening during the day, too; were I to listen before bed, I might have trouble falling asleep.) Count Dracula reminds me, at least in this performance, of nobody so much as Mr. Joel Miron. So, in a way, every time I hear Dracula torment poor Jonathan Harker, I imagine that it is the evil Joel tormenting me.


Of late, using the public library system more and more because, with the new house, I simply cannot afford further profligate expenditures on luxury items.

Unfortunately, the Clackamas County Library’s books on CD — and their graphic novels — are poorly organized. Each branch has its own method of organization. Some group all books on CD together. Others have them interspersed with the books on tape. Some branches have ten books on CD. Some have hundreds. And there’s no way to make the library’s web site, “Show me all books on CD.” (Or, “Show me all graphic novels.”) This frustrates me.

Somehow, though, I’ll find good audiobooks.

The Lake Oswego branch has all of Shakespeare’s plays on CD. And the county-wide library system has many of the Aubrey-Maturin novels.

Yes, I’ll find plenty to read. Or to hear.


On 08 September 2004 (07:39 AM),
mac said:

At present, I am reading Dracula on CD Now that’s funny!

On 08 September 2004 (07:47 AM),
Dana said:

“100111101001 11010011 00111 101011100011 0001001…”

Dang. Lost my place. I’ll have to start again…

On 08 September 2004 (07:56 AM),
Jeff said:

So, if you listen to a book on tape or CD, it is still considered reading it? Cool. I’ve read Angela’s Ashes – a few years ago when JD was reading it on tape here at work. Woo-hoo!

That’s one whole non-reference type book since college. Book group, here I come! Well, maybe not…

On 08 September 2004 (08:19 AM),
J.D. said:

So, this is a fine question, one that I’m sure has been argued many times before in other places:

Is listening to a book on tape the equivalent of reading a book?

At one time, I would have argued, “No, they are not the same.” Now I would take the opposite stance.

Having read books on tape, I know that I absorb more, comprehend more, am more aware of the richness of the work when I listen to a book than when I physically read it.

This does not mean that I’m going to stop the physical act of reading; I enjoy that too much to ever give it up. However, I am open to listening to books as a supplement to my normal reading regimen (which, at present, consists solely of comic books, anyhow).

One problem, as Mac and Dana have noted, is semantics. If I listen to a book on tape, can I really be said to have “read” it? To be reading it? I don’t know. But for now, I say yes. Unless somebody has a better verb, I’ll stick with “reading”.

Now, if only there were such a thing as “comic books on tape”… 🙂

On 08 September 2004 (08:30 AM),
Dana said:

Um, dude.

The verb you are looking for is LISTENING. You used it yourself in a couple sentences there.

You are listening to a reading of the book. You are not reading the book yourself. The physical act of reading is what we call reading, whereas the physical act of listening is what we call listening.

On 08 September 2004 (08:40 AM),
J.D. said:


I have such a tough time with this distinction because, for me, the important thing is the act of consuming the book. To me, when a book is consumed, it is read, whether that consumption occurs via the eye or the ear.

So, Dana, if you listened to an unabridged Asimov book on tape, and I asked you, “Have you read such-and-such a book?” how would you answer? Would you say, “Yes, I’ve read that book,” or would you say, “No, I’ve not read it, but I’ve listened to it.” Is this an important distinction?

On 08 September 2004 (09:09 AM),
Dana said:

Would you say, “Yes, I’ve read that book,” or would you say, “No, I’ve not read it, but I’ve listened to it.” Is this an important distinction?

I would say, “No, I’ve not read it, but I’ve listened to it.”

Do you say, “I’ve read that play,” or “I’ve seen that play?” It depends on which thing you did.

When you sit down and read a kid a book, would you say the kid has read the book? Or would you say you have read the book to the kid, and the kid has listened to the reading?

I think it is an important distinction. And so do you, really, judging by the fact that you seem to be more aware of the contents of the book when you hear it read, at least in part because of the forced pacing.

Maybe it’s just me. But I think your ‘consuming == reading’ distinction is a unique JD-ism that’s not bourne out in the populace as a whole. I could be wrong.

On 08 September 2004 (09:11 AM),
Denise said:

Hmmm…although I agree that you have consumed the book if you have listened to it…I don’t think you can actually say you have read it. You have listened to it, but you yourself have not read it.

BUT – either way – you have experienced it and I would say, if asked the question above, “Yes, I have read that book.”

Oh – this one is a toughie, no?

On 08 September 2004 (09:54 AM),
Jeff said:

Nick thinks that listening is very similar to reading because you are still able to create your own images inside your head. Whereas watching the movie is different because you are seeing the images that one person created inside their head – and are not able to create your own.

Maybe he will post to clarify this… but I doubt it.

On 08 September 2004 (10:16 AM),
Pam said:

Once I remember Mac and I having a discussion with you about the baseball term “games above .500.” Mac and I argued that the term is mathematically incorrect and should be changed. Your stance was that the term has been defined a certain way, has been used that way throughout history, and is understood by the general public to mean a certain thing, so that the term should not be changed. But now you want to change the definition of reading?? Hasn’t it been defined a certain way and been understood to mean a certain thing, too??

On 08 September 2004 (10:20 AM),
Dana said:


JD has very particular, and somewhat idiosynchratic, ideas about what certain words mean. And he’s not that consistent, sometimes.

This has the potential to shear off into a very different conversation about meaning and relativism…You Have Been Warned! =)

On 08 September 2004 (10:37 AM),
J.D. said:

Edited because I’m not really feeling that cranky or defensive and shouldn’t have come off that way:

Dana: This has the potential to shear off into a very different conversation about meaning and relativism.

You’ll note that today is the anniversary of “Everything Here is True”, by the way. 🙂

I’m usually well aware of the literal definitions of the words I use, of the words’ denotations. But I’m also concerned about connotation. What does a word mean in actual usage?

In this case, however, it’s more a matter of confusion than of anything else. My brain is jumbling various actions, and is having a difficult time sorting how these actions should be labeled.

I can understand that the physical act of listening to a book on CD should be referred to as “listening to a book”, but I cannot force myself to believe that after I have listened to, for example, Dracula on CD I could not be said to have read it. I most certainly have read the book.

And what about the blind? After all, they are not reading; they’re merely feeling the page. It’s not the same thing!

The act of reading, according to the primary definition of the word, is a visual one. But once one has read, felt, or listened to a text, I do not see why one cannot be said to have read it, by a secondary definition.

I guess what I’m seeing here, or wanting here, is evolution of the language. In this case, the verb “to read” already has multiple definitions, and I believe another one (if it doesn’t already exist) should include the act of having listened to an audio book, should be something like “the act of having consumed a piece of text”.

Language is mutable. It evolves.

As is the case when Dana makes idiosynchratic use of the word “shear” when she means “sheer”…


On 08 September 2004 (11:06 AM),
Dana said:

Shear vs. Sheer — typo.

I think there is a very great difference between processing a series of physical symbols (printed or embossed on a page) with either your sense of sight or your sense of touch vs. listening to someone else do that processing and then repeating the words audibly for you to hear.

Listening is passive. Reading (either words or braille) is active.

If you listen to an audio book, I would contend that, yes, you have access to the contents of the book, just as someone who has read the book will. But you have gained that access through another process.

You want to take and push the additional meaning “access to the contents of a book” into the word read, which previously has referred to the action of actually reading words.

Does language evolve? Yes. Does anybody other than you actually use the word read to indicate that they have listened to an audio book? I don’t know. I’ve never heard it used that way, but that means nothing.

When I hear a radio drama, I have not read it. I heard it. I listened to it.

I do not read the NPR news broadcasts, which the reporters are, in fact, reading off of news copy.

When I listen to Garrison Keillor’s Writers Almanac, I do not say I have read the poem he recites — I have listened to him recite the poem.

When I go to a book reading, I hear the author read passages of a book. I do not then say I have read those passages. I have heard them.

I see the connotation you are trying to extend here. I think it’s arbitrary, and not something that is general usage. As a consequence, I see no good argument for simply arbitrarily declaring that it is in fact the way the word should be used.

But that’s just my opinion.

On 08 September 2004 (11:19 AM),
J.D. said:

Dana, my dictionary has forty-six definitions for the word “read”.

The first is “to look at carefully so as to understand the meaning of (something written, printed, etc.).

The fourth is “to apprehend the meaning (of signs, characters, etc.) otherwise than with the eyes, as by means of the fingers.” (This definition comes dangerously close to admitting “listening to a CD” as the act of reading.)

The twentieth definition is “to hear and understand (a transmitted radio message or the person transmitting it)”. As in “I read you”. By this definition, I think I’m quite justified in saying that any book to which I listen I have also “read”.

Dana: I see the connotation you are trying to extend here. I think it’s arbitrary, and not something that is general usage.

Arbitrary? You think it’s arbitrary?


It’s not arbitrary in any way. In fact, a quick trip to the dictionary shows that I don’t have to argue for connotation, I can argue for denotation.

Also, I think you’re walking a fine line when arguing that all reading is active and all listening is passive. I believe that a person can be active or passive at both, or either, or neither. And it is, in fact, the quality of being an active reader or an active listener that allows one to get more from that which one is reading…

On 08 September 2004 (11:48 AM),
Dana said:

Dana, my dictionary has forty-six definitions for the word “read”.

Good for it!

The twentieth definition is “to hear and understand (a transmitted radio message or the person transmitting it)”. As in “I read you”. By this definition, I think I’m quite justified in saying that any book to which I listen I have also “read”.

Let’s think about the ways read is actually used, shall we?

A computer can, using a variety of peripherals, read a disk, or a CD, or a paper tape, or punch cards. Or an ATM can read a magnetic stripe on a card. In each case, we are talking about a machine performing some sensory process to pick up encoded information.

When we are using a machine with a sensor display, we say we are taking readings — we are using a machine to detect something we normally can’t, or in a way that we normally can’t. We refer to this as a reading the device. We are reading the machine’s display — it’s readout. This has become generalized into a noun, so that instrumentation output is now referred to as ‘readings.’ That’s a noun, though.

When using a radio system, we are faced with a display, much as when we are using sensors. We can say “I’m reading you loud and clear,” and the implication here is that the signal is clear. You do not read the incoming sound signal — you listen to that — but the quality of the signal is described by “reading you clearly” vs. “I’m not reading you, you’re breaking up” — the transmission signal is being picked up clearly and accurately by the machine we’re using.

This usage has bled into a slang usage, “I read you,” meaning, “I understand you.” I have never heard this used except as a specific synonym for understand, and only in the scope of a verbal communication between two people. Usually radio operators.

When we read printed matter — words — we say we are reading. So we can read a sign, read a book, a magazine, a comic book, instructions, ingredients, a recipe, or whatever.

In this meaning, ‘read’ indicates we are using our eyes to actively process encoded symbols — words — into meaning.

When a blind person (or a non-blind person who happens to know braille) reads a braille document, they are using their sense of touch to process encoded symbols — words — into meaning.

When two people talk, they are also processing encoded symbols into meaning. We do not call this reading. When we decode audio signals with our ears, we do not refer to this as reading, we refer to it as listening or hearing.

When we listen to a CD, say a spoken word performance, or a piece of music, we say that the cd-player is reading the CD, using the first sense, above. We do not then say, “I just read Beethoven’s 9th Symphony!”

We certainly could read Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Such a reading would involve using our eyes to process the encoded symbols — the printed notes — of the music. Or we could read a braille encoded version of the music, assuming there is a braille musical notation. When we process such encoded symbols with our ears, however, we call it listening.

When I said “active”, earlier, I see why you say I misspoke. I can concede that.

But look, when you are reading, you are processing symbols into meaning — an active process in your brain — using your eyes or touch. When you are listening — also an active process in your brain — you are processing symbols into meaning with your ears. This is different. Closing our ears is different than closing our eyes. To read a whole book, you have to actively move your eyes around, turn pages, and whatnot. When you listen to something, you sit there and your ears take in the incoming signal. A book does not control the rate of information intake. The speed of an incoming sound signal is dependent on the source of the sound, not on your processing speed.

I really think there are three discrete things we are talking about:

1. The process of reading a book.

2. The process of listening to a recitation of a book.

3. The awareness and knowledge of the contents of a book.

I take ‘read a book’ to mean 1. And it can imply, but does not mean 3. Likewise, ‘hearing a book’ I take to mean sense 2, and can imply, but does not mean sense 3.

You wish to describe all three things with the single word ‘read’. I certainly can’t stop you.
I don’t see that in common usage of the word ‘read’, though. Perhaps that’s just me.

On 08 September 2004 (12:40 PM),
Sparky said:

JD, are you consuming a book when you riffle through the pages to enhance your ability to smell them?

On 08 September 2004 (01:44 PM),
J.D. said:

For what it’s worth, here’s the (smallish) discussion generated when I asked Metafilter about this.

It cracks me up that when I make seemingly innocuous posts, they end up generating heated discussions. Yet, tomorrow, when I finally post my Proust entry (and I will), there’ll be dead silence, despite the fact that there’s much to think about and discuss in it. 🙂

For the record, I don’t care whether one says he’s “read” or “heard” or “audited” and audio book. I just don’t care which word is used. The important thing is that person has “consumed” the book.

On 08 September 2004 (02:13 PM),
Denise said:

So, here’s a hypothetical…what if your dog eats a book? Has he consumed the book?

On 08 September 2004 (02:20 PM),
Dana said:

On another topic entirely, George Lucas is insane.


Other minor updates made to the 1997 special editions include… a compromise to the infamous Star Wars cantina shooting, in which Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Greedo now shoot at each other at the same time, the paper said.

Solo. Shoots. First. Without that, it’s a different movie. Grumble, grumble.

On 08 September 2004 (04:02 PM),
dowingba said:

One time, as I was trying to download tracks to a LOTR soundtrack, I accidentally downloaded a chapter from the book. I must say, it was quite interesting listening to a book, especially one I had already read hundreds of times. But I always thought it would have been better done if it was more like an old time radio show, with actors doing each character’s voice, and a single actor who just narrates. It kinda sounded silly having just one guy put on a myriad of different voices, especially when one of the female characters spoke.

On 08 September 2004 (04:40 PM),
Aimee said:

I must confess that I have never actually read a single book in the Harry Potter series; Joel has narrated all of the books for me, employing a cavalcade of voices. Am I less of a fan for not having read them myself?

Our reading aloud tradition extends far beyond this series, but was born in Joel’s youth as he read books aloud for his blind father, Doug. The first book that seven-year-old Joel read aloud to Doug was The Black Cauldron.

Listening to a storyteller was a time-honored tradition before literacy, and an important skill to keep alive in our current world. Oral storytelling depends as much upon the performance as the writing. As such, storytelling is close kin to theatre; Listening to a book on tape, attending a reader’s theatre, or watching a live performance is a shared experience and a significant one. To me, there is a very important distinction between reading a text with your eyes and hearing a text with your ears. Both, however, easily allow you to “consume” a tasty tale.

On 09 September 2004 (08:10 AM),
tammy said:

Don’t know how I missed this post yesterday but I’m going to add my bit today. I think reading a book or listening to it on tape is the same thing. You’ve read the book. Watching a movie of the book is not the smae thing largely for the reasons Nick said above. But to have to go into detail everytime you want to say you’ve read a book and explain that you really didn’t read it you listened to it, is simply ridiculous in my opinion. As JD, said, you consumed it regardless of how it was consumed.

My daughter is in second grade. They have to read for twenty minutes a day for part of their homework. The school makes no distinction whether those stories are read to her or she reads them herself. It all counts as her reading a book. They have specifically spelled this out in a paper that was sent home.

Seriously, I will continue to say I read a book even though I listened to it on tape.