Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Is listening to books on tape reading?

Posted by metaphorical on 11 February 2007

Here’s a question: Rachel listens to books on tape. She said today, “I read The Secret Life of Bees.” Should she? Or should she say, “I listened to The Secret Life of Bees”? Maybe “I heard The Secret Life of Bees”? They all sound bad. What should she say?

10 Responses to “Is listening to books on tape reading?”

  1. rachel should read the god damned book

  2. I say “read”. And only snobs think that audiobooks are somehow inferior to paper books. (Unless they’re abridged, but abridged paper books exist and suck as well.)

  3. I don’t think there’s an implication of inferior; just different. The point, I think, is this: since a person who can’t read might still listen to an audiobook, it seems inaccurate to call it reading.

  4. Vicki said

    I would say “read.”

    It is the common parlance to say that one “speaks” American Sign Lanugage. “Oh, she doesn’t speak sign.” “He speaks sign pretty well.” No one would bat an eyelash, although you could say “Oh, she doesn’t sign.” or “He signs well.” They are absolutely interchangeable.

    So she “read” it or she “listened” to it; they are equivalent.

  5. That’s interesting, but looking at the first five definitions of “speak” at dictionary.com, which is based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary:


    verb, spoke or (Archaic) spake; spo·ken or (Archaic) spoke; speak·ing.
    –verb (used without object)

    1. to utter words or articulate sounds with the ordinary voice; talk: He was too ill to speak.
    2. to communicate vocally; mention: to speak to a person of various matters.
    3. to converse: She spoke with him for an hour.
    4. to deliver an address, discourse, etc.: to speak at a meeting.
    5. to make a statement in written or printed words.
    6. to communicate, signify, or disclose by any means; convey significance.

    Looking at (5) and (6), it seems “speak” isn’t tied to the oral nature of the activity in the way way that “read” is tied to the idea of a nonverbal grasping of understanding.

  6. Rachel said

    Point of clarification:

    Rachel does *not* “read” abridged audiobooks. Ever.

  7. Harry said

    I’d say “read” in the same way that I often “heard” something in email. Or better, when called upon to convey something in an email where I’m forced to decide between a [speech/audio] expression and a [writing/visual] expression, almost always I go with the literally incorrect speech/audio option. While incorrect, it is more correct in intent than anything else.

    Books are not, I believe, listened to as euphonious sound, so they’re not “listened to” or “heard” the way music is: to use those literally correct phrases would, I think, not convey the more correct impression that the book was experienced and understood as narrative text. Of course, one could say that lectures and speeches are “heard” as text, but I sense a sort of Aristotelian taxonomic division between them and audio books that makes sense to me, even if I don’t explicitly know what that division is. Length, maybe.

  8. No to belabor this (well, I obviously am belaboring this, but not for its own sake), the reading–>hearing restatement seems to me to go in only one direction. The ability to process language (and functioning ears) is all you need to hear a book, but reading requires language-processing, eyesight (or touch, for braille), and a third capability.

    You can say “I heard the other day that X happened” when you read about it, but I’m unfamiliar with the reverse. You’d never say “I read the other day that X happened” after watching CNN.

  9. Harry said

    Well, I think this is the example you’re looking for, of an appropriate reversal of the reading > hearing interchange.

  10. plm said

    Oooooooo, do books on tape (or cd or vinyl or in digital form) have sound effects and cool stuff like that?

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