I spent the better part of a Saturday evening recently debating this issue with some friends (yes, such is my life). I'm curious as to what my fellow Hatrackers think.
I want to note that I'm not talking about what you might say to someone as a practical matter (or at least I don't think that should decide the issue on its own). Meaning, say you've never physically read a book before, but you've listened to the audiobook and a friend asks you if you've read the book. I think most of us would feel relatively comfortable answering yes (though some might say something like, "well, I've listened to the audiobook."), though this might be more of a matter of practical convenience since you might think that 'for all intents and purposes' what you did was close enough to the notion of reading that it's not worth the correction. Again, this might influence how and why we answer the original question in one way, but I don't want to take that sort of answer as equivalent to the person being committed to the notion that what they did while they were listening to the audiobook was reading it, i.e. - answering yes as a matter of convenience does not mean that listening to an audiobook is the same as reading the book.
Okay, so as to not beg any questions I want to remove the intuitive response that draws a distinction between reading and listening to/hearing a book. The relevant distinction is whether reading is only something that can be done by looking at/seeing words or whether it can also be by hearing words.
I also want to block the objection that I'm somehow committed to the notion that if you think listening to an audiobook is reading the book that you're committed to the notion that if you read a book then you've also listened to the book. This objection in part is already begging the question above, but more than that, the argument isn't that seeing=hearing, but rather that seeing and hearing are both ways in which you can read. They are each sufficient though not necessary conditions, and neither is equivalent to the other. i.e. - A can cause C and B can cause C, but A!=B.
I'm also well aware that the above proposal does not match the dictionary definition of the word, but this is also not at issue. Definitions change and adapt. The relevant question is whether the definition/concept of reading should be changed to accommodate this alternative way of getting words into our heads.
This view also doesn't commit you to the idea that if you've seen a movie you've read the book. Movies are rarely ever word for word adaptations of books, and no matter how good the adaptation, you are not getting the exact same information you get from reading a book (often times you get less, but you might even be said to get more in many ways given the information contained within visual information).
Listening to a podcast or radio show would not count as reading the show, mostly because most radio shows incorporate auditory effects deliberately to produce a particular experience in the listener which is not something conveyed by words alone. All instances of listening are not necessarily instances of reading, in the same way that all instances of seeing are not instances of reading.
So, the basics of the argument are this. Reading should be defined as the process of acquiring words which have been stored in a medium in a sequential fashion. The way in which those words enter your brain/head is irrelevant. And we see this shown in the fact that people who are blind and use braille to acquire the words contained in books or on signs are considered to be reading when they do so. Yet they are not seeing the words, they are feeling them. They are acquiring the words through proprioceptive sensation rather than visual. Why not include auditory acquisition of words in the definition of reading as well? I want to say that in EVERY meaningful sense of the word, I've now read the book.
Another argument that was brought up was this: listening to an audiobook shouldn't count as reading because the voice of the narrator influences your experience of the book in a significant enough way that it no longer meets the criteria of reading. Reading is when the words are experienced without outside influence (which is why braille would count but not audiobooks). I'm unconvinced by this. It's true that listening to an audiobook constrains the way in which you can interpret a text given the way in which it is read, but this is true at all times. The way in which you interpret a text when 'reading' it will be constrained by your own psychology and will likely be experienced in different ways when you re-read books at different times in your life. Each individual person will also be constrained in different ways by their own psychology as well. Do you end up with a notion of *reading, where no one just reads a book, but you GregRead or JasonRead or MichelleRead or JaneRead a book? That seems odd, but I might be willing to bite the bullet on that one.
One last argument was that listening to an audiobook is not reading a book, but the end result of both processes is that you now "know" the book. So the above argument is conflating the process with the end result. I'm not sure about this one. It depends on what we mean by "know". If I read a detailed summary of a book I might know the book, but I certainly haven't read the book.
The process of learning how to read under this account would also seem awfully weird. When I learn how to speak a language am I also learning how to read?
Any other thoughts? Other objections? Objections I didn't adequately address? Is this whole argument premised on a crazy assumption?
Some random stray thoughts:
If each letter of the alphabet when written down was infused with a different smell, and I was able to differentially smell each letter and combine them into words, would everyone be okay with calling this reading?
What if I had some special device hooked up to my eyes that when I looked at words on a page those words were converted into auditory signals that were redirected to my ears, and the visual signal that hit my retinas was blocked from reaching my visual cortex? The words are written, and picked up by my eyes, but processed by my auditory cortex rather than my visual cortex. Reading?
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I'd say yes. I think the objection that a specific reader influences your understanding/experience - but I don't think that difference is significantly different from reading a book while hungry or full, tired or rested, before or after reading the books in the same series, high or low light, in silence or surrounded by noise - there are so many things that influence visual reading that I don't think an experienced audiobook reader could be fairly argued to have not read the book.
Now, someone who doesn't read, either by listening or using their eyes, might have more of a difficult time separating the narrator from the text - but I'd say that similar to a new/inexperienced reader and a specific font (I know I've had seriously awful reading experiences just because the book was in large print, or poorly printed with slanted columns).
Lastly, I would say that I don't think many people (I know there are Luddites who do this, but it's not significant in my experience) differentiate between reading a book in physical form or reading on an electronic device. However, I'd say the reading on that kind of device does introduce a physical difference comparable to that of different narrators in audiobooks.
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dkw, I think I'd have to bite the bullet on that one, right?
Sam, are you just saying that we metaphorically refer to what we do on forums using terms that technically only apply to auditory conversations? Or are you suggesting I should be committed to those notions? If the latter, remember, just because I'm saying that seeing and hearing are both ways in which one can read, doesn't mean that if I've read something I've heard it. Since I could've looked at the words.
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Is it important to be able to say you've read it? Because otherwise I'd say if you listen to an audiobook, then you've had a different experience with the book than you would have had you read it on paper. It's not necessarily an inferior experience, but it's certainly not the same one as reading the words on paper.
ETA: In our home we've been slowly listening to our unabridged audio version of LOTR, and I've found that it's been a much different experience with that work, even though I've read it several times before. I feel like I've both read it and listened to it now.
But--and I think this where people are usually thinking in this discussion--if you've listened to an unabridged audiobook, then you've been exposed to the same text. Unless your listening comprehension is vastly inferior to your reading comprehension, then I'd say for all intents and purposes you've read the book.
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