Do Audio Books Count As Reading?
And Other Pernicious Questions That Arise for Visually Impaired Book-Lovers
I never had been much of a reader. In elementary school, the monthly stack of books I checked out from the public library consisted of how-to-draw manuals, guides for making paper airplanes, and photo galleries of old monster movies. Occasionally, when book reports forced my hand, I managed to get lost in a short novel, but the only non-illustrated books I read of my own volition were entries in the Choose Your Own Adventure series. And yes, I was a Choose Your Own Adventure cheater. Given the options at the end of a chapter, to do this, go to this page or to do that, go to that page, I flipped ahead to both choices to see which involved the least text. Eventually, I made the logical leap to comic books and never looked back, until the burnout of my optic nerves at age 16 rendered every panel of Sandman and Hellblazer as abstract as a Jackson Pollock.
Following the diagnosis of Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy, an untreatable if not progressive condition, I met with a low vision specialist to discuss adaptive aids. My vision was uncorrectable, so reading meant making words large enough to skirt my central blind spots. The low vision doctor, who looked like Molly Ringwald’s bookish sister, handed me magnifiers and pages with text. Right away we moved past the wide, Sherlock Holmes style with a handle. The only models that allowed me to read fonts in a magazine—a few words at a time—were the three-inch-tall loupes I had only seen in movies. Think jewel thieves scrutinizing diamonds for subtle imperfections.
“How expensive is this?” I asked. I had always been a cost-conscious kid, in part because my spending money came from chores and selling soda and baseball cards out of my school locker. This particular frugality, however, came from growing guilt that my various doctor visits, hospital stays, and out-of-state trips were eating into the money my parents had been saving to move out of our aging house on a dirt road.
“Don’t tell him how much anything costs,” Dad said.
Smiling, the doctor said her policy was not to hide any information from the patient. She revealed the exorbitant price of everything she handed me. My parents, somewhat testily, made it clear to me that price wasn’t an issue.
“Speaking of prices,” the doctor said, “I want you to tell me how much that says.”
She handed me a rectangular price tag you’d find on a new sweater. I placed the 15X loupe against it and told her the listed price.
“Are you sure about that?”
I returned the magnifier to the bottom of the tag, making sure I had not mistaken an eight for a nine or a six. The numbers still looked like the ones I thought I had seen. The doctor asked if I saw anything unusual near the bottom. A thin, light red line ran the length of it. To the left of the red line was a handwritten number. It was a disheartening lesson: Even when I saw something, I might not see everything.
I left with four different magnifiers, a four-inch telescope I could theoretically use to see the chalkboard or overhead projections, a plastic holder into which you could slide checks to keep everything on the right lines, and a ream of special notebook paper. The latter had black lines and plenty of space between them, not unlike the paper they give you in elementary school to practice cursive.
The low vision doctor signed paperwork to verify I was legally blind. One form granted me access to a specialized library for the blind and physically handicapped. The branch serving all of West Virginia was located in the capitol complex, a few miles from where we lived. A sign inside the Cultural Center led us to the basement. Somewhere in this building was the famed Mountain Stage, which R.E.M. once called one of their favorite venues, but the long, dim hallway where we ended up was less rock concert than abandoned radio station.
Inside, the odor of plastic was so thick it could have been a doll factory. I squinted in the bright fluorescent lights. When an older woman noticed us by the door, she assumed we were in the wrong place until Mom showed her my paperwork. Suddenly she was glad to see us.
In a brief tour, the librarian walked us down aisles of metal shelves, pointing to a stack of relics from the years books were recorded on vinyl rather than cassettes. Most patrons being print-disabled, the library wasn’t set up for browsing. Instead, requests were made over the phone, and books were shipped for free through the mail. To return them, you simply flipped the postage label to the side with the library’s return address, Free Matter for the Blind printed in the corner where postage would go. The plastic scent in the air came from the pale green cartons that held the tapes.
A second librarian—were they still librarians if all the books were on tape?—emerged from a storage room with the special cassette player I would need to listen to any books I checked out. It weighed around ten pounds and was twice the size of my biggest textbook. All the cassettes held four sides, and the second librarian explained how to toggle between tracks one/two and tracks three/four. Another switch adjusted the vocal speed, from a frog’s croak to Alvin and the Chipmunks on cocaine.
I thought we were here to check out school textbooks, but the first librarian said that a place called Recordings for the Blind handled those. The books here were the sort found in a regular library. When she asked if there was anything I wanted to check out, the question caught me off guard.
I couldn’t remember the last book I had read that wasn’t assigned by an English teacher, and most of those I abandoned after 20 or 30 pages, piecing the rest together from class discussions and Cliff’s Notes.
“Do you have Jaws?” I asked.
In the 1870s, Thomas Edison recorded the first audio book, “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” on the phonograph he invented. In the future, he believed, this would be the primary way people enjoyed books. Half a century would go by before technology allowed for longer recording. Around that time, an act of Congress established the Talking Books program, which provided millions of visually impaired Americans access to the written word. By the 1990s, its collection was exponentially bigger than the books-on-tape section of a public library, still dominated by self-help titles, but it generally took bestsellers a year to reach shelves. Midlist titles that didn’t win literary prizes seldom got recorded, but for the print-disabled who didn’t know Braille, the Talking Books program was the only game in town.
The librarian confirmed they had Peter Benchley’s shark novel that became the Spielberg movie I had seen a dozen times. I asked if they had Deliverance. A further limitation of the library was that the patron needed to know what he was looking for. Librarians would do their best in the coming years to correct my spelling of authors’ names, but stumbling upon titles I didn’t already know wasn’t in my immediate future. When she said they had Deliverance, I tried to think of other movies that started out as books.
The librarian returned with the green cartons containing my selections. I wasn’t convinced I was going to read them, but it felt good to have the option, to ask someone if I could do something and, for the first time in months, hear yes.
In my previous life as an ordinary teen, my afterschool routine had been some combination of TV, Sega Genesis, napping, and reading comments on the Prodigy message boards. In light of ocular events, only television and sleep remained in the mix. For a few weeks after the diagnosis, I could still bring my face close enough to the computer to read brief messages, but an acuity of 20/70 soon became 20/200 and falling. Holding a magnifier against the computer screen until the pixelated words came into focus proved tedious and eventually impossible.
As for watching TV, if I got close enough to the set, portions of the picture were large enough to follow what was happening. Seated on the foot of my bed, a few feet from my 27-inch TV, I found my ears were able to reconstruct most of the picture that I couldn’t see.
The small telescope we had purchased from the low vision clinic justified its hefty price when I grew tired of sitting on the foot of my bed. I didn’t dare pull it out in class, not only because it didn’t make the writing on the overhead readable, but because I wasn’t about to out myself in front of classmates who were not, by and large, aware that I was different from the person they had known since junior high. Lying on my bed, I held the telescope to my better eye and aimed it at the TV. When my arm became tired, I shifted it to my other hand. Enlarging the screen didn’t make it any clearer, so when both arms were tired I set the telescope on my night-stand. What I came to find, in these minutes when the blurry picture reverted to dancing light, was how well memory and imagination replaced the picture.
It would be disingenuous to suggest watching movies and television wasn’t significantly altered by the loss of my eyesight. The reason they call them movies, after all, is the same reason television surpassed radio in popularity. For every interchangeable car or sunrise, there are countless images we can behold a million times and never tire of seeing: the ocean, kittens, the naked body, one of those Hollywood smiles you feel in the pit of your stomach. The visual cues and cinematic grandeur I don’t notice in a film’s 24 frames per second could fill the shelves of a library, but I was surprised, despite what I couldn’t see, that most of the story remained intact. Gradually I discovered that watching movies and TV with my ears felt a lot like reading.
“This book contains up to four sides per cassette. Side one: Stories of Jack London by Jack London. Narrated by John Stratton. Introduction by I. Milo Shepard. Approximate reading time: Thirty-four hours and forty-six minutes. To skip past any prefatory material, press fast-forward until a beep is heard. At that point, press play for the table of contents or fast-forward until another beep is heard to hear the beginning of the book. Library of Congress annotation: Celebrated author of the Klondike…”
Listening to my first book on tape, a vague picture of the narrator popped into my head, the way one imagines the faces of people on the phone or radio. He sounded slender, perhaps a man in his late forties with thinning hair that has just begun to gray. It’s not as hard as you’d think to guess someone’s appearance from their voice, inflection, and the personality that peeks around the corners of words. Minutes into the book, however, I was no longer picturing the narrator. Not long into the first story, the author’s words became louder than the voice reading them.
On my way out of the library for the blind that first day, brainstorming other books I might check out, I had remembered enjoying the short story “To Build a Fire” in eighth grade, the only thing in a textbook I ever read by choice. Now I was listening to a story called “Love of Life,” about a lost man on the verge of starvation in the Alaskan wilderness. In another, an Irish mother, out of stubbornness or resignation, gives each of her sons the same name that seems to curse them to an early death. You could skip stories by fast-forwarding until the beep, but I never did. Within a few days, I had finished the entire book. Days after that, I finished another.
Over the years, people have asked if I noticed a difference between books on tape and reading print, and the answer is I don’t know. Sporadic reader that I had been, it was hard to say if the words read with my ears reached my brain differently from everything I had read with my eyes. For every study that shows comparably complex brain activity during both methods of reading, there’s a respected author or critic who discredits audio books as shortcuts or cheating. In The Guttenberg Elegies, Sven Birkerts suggests listening to a book shares more with the act of watching television than reading print, and given my own seamless transition from watching TV with my ears to reading talking books, I’m in no position to refute his comparison.
What I know for sure is this: Sooner or later, the voice in my ears ceases to be a voice. It becomes the words, the words become sentences, and the sentences become the story. At some point, the voice in my ears merges with my own voice the way the words on a page once became my own inner voice when I still read print. This happens less consciously, perhaps not even literally, when listening to professional narrators. Other times, with the less polished volunteers who recorded my textbooks or, years later, the digital voice of screen-reading software, the translation to an inner voice is more conscious.
In an unexpected development, perhaps the first pleasant alteration to my lifestyle in the wake of my first failed eye exam, I became a reader. Books. Me. One after another. In school, the kids who read books not assigned by an English teacher were what we called nerds. My friends and I were also nerds for collecting comic books, for never having girlfriends or weekend plans, but a handful of kids still stood out for seeming to live in their own world, tucked into a corner of the library with noses buried in an Isaac Asimov paperback. One guy in my homeroom read while he walked, bumping into people like some caricature of a misfit in a John Hughes movie.
It wasn’t fear of nerddom that kept me from reading during school hours. Even if I stowed the bulky cassette player in my backpack, there was no hiding my earphones. Not that there was anything wrong with earphones, but what if someone asked what I was listening to? My answer would lead to another question, and another one after that. I hadn’t intended my low vision to be a secret until I noticed the way some people, the ones who knew, now regarded me. Some friends became acquaintances, some acquaintances strangers, as they seemed to speak only to the people around me. Thus, my reading was done at home, after school, usually with the lights off and the TV on mute.
My new reading life extended to my textbooks. For years I had done little more than skim assigned chapters, but staying on top of the reading for my classes meant one less thing I had to fake. As a result, most of my grades improved.
But was I actually reading? I regarded myself as a reader, but were these really books? Many years before I would think of myself as a writer, I was aware of the stigma associated with books on tape. Jokes on sitcoms implied audio books were to physical books what flag football is to the NFL. To read is to analyze, to study, to process information, and yet a tiny lump in the shape of a lie surfaced each time I used this verb to refer to titles I checked out from my specialized library.
Throughout college, after declaring an English major, I clarified to friends that narrators of my audio books didn’t perform what they read, as though a straightforward narration had more integrity, a closer relationship to the hardcovers sold in bookstores. Every time I’ve nearly convinced myself this negative perception of audio books is in my head, a new argument for print books appears in my social media timeline to remind me there is only one pure way to read. Most of these are told-you-so eulogies for the eBook, which, after Amazon equipped its Kindle with a text-to-speech function, meant access to obscure and newly released novels for the first time in my life. Subtler attacks on alternative methods of reading are no less painful. In a 2012 essay for The New York Times Book Review, the neurologist Oliver Sacks, known for chronicling difference with empathy and sensitivity, writes about his own failing vision, lamenting the scarcity of large-print books. He wants a “real book made of paper with print—a book with heft, with a bookish smell, as books have had for the last 550 years.” Sacks has no interest in audio books, calling himself “a reader, not a listener.”
There is nothing quite like the scent of a library. The aroma of old paper when you walk through the door is the smell of thought itself, of memory and time. For years, I bought used books I could display on a shelf because being an English major and aspiring writer who didn’t own books made me feel like more of an imposter than I already did. Occasionally I loaned them to people, letting the recipient assume that this copy I was giving them, this paperback or hardcover and not the four-track cassettes in the green plastic container, was the one I had read. Occasionally, when no one was around, I pulled one from the shelf and turned the pages. Even without a magnifier, my eyes can tell where the text lies, locate the little black wings on the otherwise blank page that must be the dedication. A few times I would hold the hardcover in my hand while the cassette played, guessing when to turn the page.
In graduate school, I’ve feared that I might be missing some element of the reading experience, that I might never have been reading at all. Even today, I continue to worry that the stories and books I write are not organic, authentic creations because all the books that have inspired and educated me were consumed through secondary media, replications of the original text. A scholar of the humanities might point out the Homeric tradition of oral storytelling, noting that once upon a time writing and publishing didn’t even exist. For years I tried to write such an essay, defending the way I read by describing the different languages of the world, the unique alphabets with their own characters incomprehensible to other cultures. But there is no defense quite like the feeling that you have nothing to defend.
If the distinction between reading and listening didn’t matter in the days of Homer, it mattered each time my freshman philosophy professor failed to remember our conversation about my eyes on the first day of class, when he continued to call on me to read aloud a passage of Sartre or Descartes and I had to announce my disability to a room of 25 college students I didn’t know. It mattered in my dorm rooms when I stowed the white boxes of my recorded textbooks under my bed, stamped in black ink with Recordings for the Blind and Free Matter for the Blind. It mattered when, encountering Descartes in another class, the philosopher declared sight “the noblest and most comprehensive of the five senses.” The rising popularity of Audible in recent years has led to a number of friends, many of them writers, giving audio books a try. And this would feel more like progress if their Facebook posts about these audio books weren’t so apologetic—“Well, I didn’t read it, I just listened to it.” For those of us who read with our ears, writes Matthew Rubery in The Untold Story of the Talking Book, “listening means always having to say you’re sorry.”
Alone in my bedroom when I was 16, popping tape after tape into my talking book player, it didn’t matter if I was reading or listening. The book titles on the side of the green cartons were the same as the copies found on the shelves of bookstores and regular libraries. They were the same authors. The words in my ears were the same words other people saw when they held a book in their hands.