Reading vs Listening to a Book

Veronica Kordmany, Sports Editor

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Envision this: You are sitting on your living room couch at a quarter to midnight. Your lamp’s artificial glow gives the room light in absence of the Sun, and your mind focuses on the object sitting on your lap. You pick up another page with the tips of your fingers, feeling the crisp edges come apart as the pages separate themselves. You relish the savory sound of a page gliding across from cover-to-cover, one page closer to unraveling the story.

Can you see it?

The world is asleep, and all that lies awake is you, the lamp, and the book. Everything else falls away into the sleepy abyss of nighttime. Every new word your eyes take in is like another thrill on a rollercoaster, one track closer to the big drop. The lamp cheers you on, its bright rays never wavering.

Now try to envision that whole scenario again. You are on the couch again, the lamp illuminating the room, the clock buzzing lightly as the numbers roll closer to 12:00 AM. But there is a notable vacancy, most recognizable by the way you sit. Your position is awkward. You are sitting with your hands clasped together, or you are lying down on the couch, corpse-style.

But what is missing?

A book. In its place are a pair of headphones shoved into your eardrums, drowning out your ability to think, or perhaps a tablet scratching the shrine of silence to shreds. The words are read aloud in a voice that sounds nothing like the one in your head. This voice is fake; the octaves are shrill, the character impersonations are laughable. You are paying to hear this impersonator read one of your favorite stories to you. It is discouraging.

So, was it worth it? Did the experience of hearing, rather than reading, change anything for you?

Envision this. Two canvases, sitting side-by-side. One illustrates you cradling a book, its spine cracking as it opens up, your periphery limited to the width of the covers as your hands, the couch, the walls, melt out of sight. Another illustrates you sitting with your elbows on your knees. And then you with your feet laid out along the length of the couch. Your position changing like arrows spinning around a clock, unable to pick a spot and stay in place. The tablet’s incompatibility is evident in the way it is grasped, unable to fit comfortably in your hands, its heat becoming too hot to sit on your lap.

University of Virginia psychologist Daniel Willingham once argued that listening to books does not constitute as ‘cheating’. He told Science Of Us, there are two processes associated with reading, regardless of the format of the action. ‘Decoding’, or the zipper that makes the words on the page line up into cohesive sentences, and ‘language processing’, which is understanding the literary devices, the plot, etc. Willingham continued to debunk the theory of cheating by explaining what the brain constitutes as cheating.

When you listen to an audiobook, your brain does less work during the two aforementioned processes. That is true, but only when it comes to language processing. As science writer Olga Khazan recollected in 2011, a “1985 study found listening comprehension correlated strongly with reading comprehension’— suggesting that those who read books well would listen to them just as well.

Melissa Dahl, a writer for The Cut, wrote in an article that “Decoding, by contrast, is specific to reading; this is indeed one more step your mind has to take when reading a print book as compared to listening to the audiobook version. But by about late elementary school, decoding becomes so second-nature that it isn’t any additional ‘work’ for your brain. It happens automatically.”

The verdict says that reading and listening are synonymous. You absorb and retain information the same way. Ultimately, it belittles itself to a matter of preference. Do you prefer throwing away your electronics in favor of an old-fashioned book? Or are you more modern, and cannot concentrate unless a robotic voice assumes the position meant for your eyes?

Reading counts more for me. Reading is an art form that technology has always been too defunct to possess. The story counts as well as the physical contact established by the reader or by the book. The reader can settle into a comfortable position, rendering themselves frozen for the time it takes them to go from ignorance to enlightened.

The metal texture is a reminder that what lies inside of the tablet is not flesh and blood, but wires and codes. No matter how convincing the impersonator may appear, all the characters acting out the story and all the places they venture to are more than the images that appear on the screen.