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Of course audiobooks count as reading

The notion that there are cultural gatekeepers who get to say “what counts” feels … medieval. And I mean that literally.
Photo illustration: Books float over an image of a woman with her headphones on.
NBC News / Getty Images

This year, I joined nearly 6.5 million other people and set a reading challenge via Goodreads. I gave myself a goal of 50 books to finish by the end of 2022 (Goodreads reports 49 was the average this year). To be honest, I wasn’t sure I could do it. I love to read, but these days by evening — the time of day I’ve always allotted for reading — I’m falling asleep.

To my surprise, I finished the challenge just before Thanksgiving — because I found a way to experience books during other stretches of my day, such as while running, gardening, driving, tidying up or sitting in bleachers.

Not only is this argument insufferable, made — and I’m just guessing — by insufferable people, it’s also the worst kind of ableism.

The secret to my success: audiobooks. 

Except for some reason, there are people out there who think I haven’t succeeded at all, because audiobooks don’t “count.”

One of my friends reports that she continually argues with one of her parents who insists audiobooks are “shortcuts” and could possibly lead to a collective dumbing down of society. Another friend says that one of her immediate family members pointedly asks her whether she is “reading” or “listening” whenever she mentions a book — and clearly disapproves when she sees the audiobooks included in my friend’s “read” list on Goodreads. 

I might think this was limited to family squabbles, except I see similar arguments happening online, such as Facebook commenters wringing their hands over whether their audiobooks count toward their reading challenge and Reddit posts claiming that it's “like arguing that a toddler that gets read a book by his mother did indeed read it - which is absurd.”

The idea that audiobooks don’t “count” angers me — as a reader, writer and human being. The argument, as far as I can tell, is that listening to a book is cheating because it means passively consuming a book. Not only is this argument insufferable, made — and I’m just guessing — by insufferable people, it’s also the worst kind of ableism because it hides behind virtuousness and some pseudo-intellectual idea that listening isn’t “smart” enough.  

Instead of nonsense, here are some facts. First, audiobooks are exploding. In its 2022 Consumer Survey, the Audio Publishers Association found that 45% of all Americans over age 18 have listened to an audiobook. Further, 61% of parents say their kids listen to them — up from 35% in 2020. Should they be told their experience of the book isn’t as rich?  

Second, audiobooks make books more accessible. They not only help people with blindness or low vision (which is how audiobooks started) and people who have processing issues or learning disabilities that make reading words on a page difficult, but also make books more attainable for the masses of book lovers out there who are easily distracted when reading or too busy.

I would argue that many listening experiences enrich the books themselves, especially when authors read their own work. It’s why I read mine for the audio version of my book about honesty. And even when it’s not the author — there’s often a professional narrator for fiction — the right voices bring it to life. Voices can represent cultures, accents, intonations in a way that you can’t do in your own head.

Some of the most divine experiences I had devouring books this year happened because I was listening to them — keeping me running or walking extra miles during both heat waves and snowfalls. Writer Dani Shapiro narrating her novel “Signal Fires.” Me Too founder Tarana Burke reading her memoir “Unbound.” British actors Imogen Church and Theo Solomon reading Rosie Walsh’s page-turner “The Love of My Life.” The voices made my brain come alive. 

Either way, listening and reading both engage audiences in the same act of absorbing a story. We read to escape, to improve ourselves, to build empathy. These things all happen in equal measure when you listen to a book instead of holding it in your hands. In fact, research has found that the effect of narrative on your brain — that feeling of being drawn in, enraptured even — is the same regardless of how you consume the story.

This impassioned defense of audiobooks has me wondering why I even need to make it. Perhaps the fault lies with George Costanza. In one classic “Seinfeld” episode, George — a character who always wants the easy way out — purposely fails an eye exam to qualify to receive an audio tape for a textbook that he can only obtain from Reading for the Blind if he can’t see. 

This idea that listening to books is cheating still circulates, especially when people share their reading lists and brag about their reading challenges — which is when “counting” takes on an even more literal meaning. 

I embarked on a reading challenge for the simple reason that I wanted to engage with books more, including buying them, borrowing them, listening to them and putting them in my Little Free Library. While my list is public because I like sharing my recommendations with friends, I’m not interested in beating anyone.

Still, if you are, you do you, my friend. But the notion that there are cultural gatekeepers who get to say “what counts” feels … medieval. And I mean that literally, since during the Middle Ages, less than 20% of the population could read. The ruling class wanted it that way.

Listen, I’m a record-keeping fiend, with journals full of lists of books I’ve read, not to mention 25 years of running logs. So I understand that desire to get it down for posterity, to say, “This is my data! Here are my books!” I also get the instinct to crowdsource answers to those “Does it count?” questions that plague us, like, “Does it count as quality time with my kids if I was annoyed with them the whole time?”

Getting reassurance from others is a very human impulse. There are most certainly novels and self-help books about why we do this. You should listen to them.