The Q: Can You “Read” an Audiobook?

The QA few months ago, my wife picked up an audiobook from the library (it was Rob Lowe’s Stories I Only Tell My Friends, in case you were wondering). I had never listened to an audiobook before, but I’ve always believed that the more you read good writing the better you will become at writing nonfiction and writing fiction. So if I could squeeze more reading in, great. And, it turns out, I love reading audiobooks. It’s the perfect way to spend my solo time in the car, beating the other well-known car pastime of complaining about traffic.  So now I read in the car.

Or do I?

I told a friend that I was reading Rob Lowe’s memoir and he asked me what page I was on. “I have no idea,” I said. “I’m reading the audiobook.”

Read an audiobook?” he said. “Brian, you don’t read audiobooks. You listen to them. That’s like saying I read the latest Radiohead CD or I read Jurassic Park when you only watched the movie.” Though I argue that neither of those are comparable and that audiobooks are typically word-for-word versions of a printed book.

But this brought up an interesting point. If you listen to an audiobook, can you say, I read XYZ book? Or is it wrong to say “read” when your eyeballs didn’t digest a single word? I’m on the fence and want your opinion.

So THE Q is:
After listening to an audiobook, is it fair to tell others that you have read the book? Why or why not? (Note: If you say no, then what do you tell others?)

Leave your thoughts in the comments section. I’m hoping to be swayed one way or the other.


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26 thoughts on “The Q: Can You “Read” an Audiobook?

  1. WordWeaver

    I have many totally blind friends who cannot read print at all but love to read audiobooks. Therefore, is it wrong for them to say they read the book just because they cannot read the printed version? I do not believe so. How else are they supposed to read the book, especially if they do not have the finger sensitivity to read Braille, they do not know Braille, or the book is not produced in Braille? I think it is closed-minded to say that only the sighted can say they have read a book. But that is only my opinion, and you may take it as you wish.

  2. Meredith

    I know I am a couple of weeks late on this comment but I need to put my two cents in. I am visually impaired/blind, therefore audio books are the way I read. Without them the world of books are a fantasy. I don’t read Braille so I am in the group of impaired readers that fall between the cracks of the literary world. I wish more authors/publishers or whoever makes those decisions made all books available to us on audio book. We are very limited on obtaining books on this format and many books are not available to us. My mother and myself are both blind and rely on these books for our enjoyment and knowledge. Our two best resources are, which offers a membership with discounts on audio books and the Library of Congress Materials for the visually impaired, who has a limited and wide selection of audio books for us to download and listen to as long as you don’t mind waiting up to two years for it to be offered. I have come across several titles that are not available to us that I would love to read.

    So, to answer your question: Yes, I do read an audio book.

  3. E.B.Pike

    Yes! I always count books I’ve listened to/read via audiobook as a book that I’ve read. I work full time, I’m raising two kids, and I try to read a book a week while still finding time to write. Umm…. If I didn’t listen to audio books during my commute, I wouldn’t read half as much as I do. I’m always excited to get into the car on the way into work in the morning, so I can pick up where my story left off. I think any book you’ve listened to on audio tape is a book you’ve read.

  4. FunkyGal

    I love listening to someone reading books. I love books, but will often not distinguish between having read one with my eyes or my ears. Most people don’t care, though if I come across an exceptional narrator or voice actor, I will pass on the information. Jim Dale’s reading of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was exceptional, unabridged, and quite a jaunt through a repertoire of characters. I read the series for myself (as a college student when book 1 came out), listened to them later, watched film interpretations, and much later, read them to my niece and nephews as bedtime entertainment. All variations of the same love of the book. All valid.

    Now, as one who writes, using only a keyboard to enter the words into a digital medium, do we actually “write” books? Or do we key them in? If we speak into a “writing” program, is it writing? Would one ever say your form of writing is less valid? Semantics, variations on a theme, all production of language for others to digest in whatever way they feel most comfortable, or all of the above.

  5. Naomi

    I always say I “listen” to audiobooks. I never say that I “read” audiobooks. When I attend a lecture, I don’t read what the speaker is saying; I listen to what the speaker is saying. I think the same is true for audiobooks.

  6. monica67

    This is a great question, and one I’ve asked myself many times as I’ve listened to/read an audiobook. I think it’s at least partly a result of the creation of media so new that we’ve not developed or become comfortable with all the terms involved in their use.

    For myself, I seem to come down on both sides of this. I believe that if I’ve listened to an audiobook, I have read that book. As many people have commented, there are many forms of reading. If the reading is oral, such as when you read with your children, it’s still reading.

    But it’s undoubtedly a different experience to be read to, by a person or a CD. I have found that there are certain books I don’t want to listen to/read on CD. Some of this decision is influenced by the fact that I listened to my audiobooks in the car. I’ve always said, if I listened to a Stephen King on my commute, I’m liable to drive off the road! And I wouldn’t attempt to read/listen to Shakespeare on audio. That’s probably because I’m a visual person, and my comprehension is better when I see the material — something that would be important when reading Shakespeare.

    Is listening to audiobooks reading? It seems it depends on your definition of reading. I prefer to have a broader definition. These days, things don’t remain the same for long, even definitions.

  7. dtn

    The answer to this question is simple. The format in which the author’s words are rendered should not matter. Does a blind person “feel” a book or do they “read” a book when they use their fingers to feel the braille rendering of the author’s words? I would strongly argue that they read the book.

    Can a character in a book ever “tell” a story if the character in fact never speaks the words since they are, in reality, only printed on paper? Sure they can. Our characters “say” things all the time even though we consume their “speech” in written form.

    Consumption of information is consumption of information. Sure, one could differentiate by saying I listened to the audiobook or experienced the audiobook (because it truly is an experience) but in the end, they will consume the same content as anyone who reads the words on paper/screen, feels them in braille, or has them downloaded directly to their mind chip (oh, wait – that’s only in The Matrix).

    So, I urge you all to go forth and read a book in audiobook format if you haven’t yet. But be warned, you may never want to go back!

  8. j t hall

    If you use your ears, you’re listening. That’s what ears are for. To read, you require eyes. Look at the page, see the words with your eyes, and allow the brain to process the words. So, no, you can’t read an audio book.

  9. eoghanodinsson

    I say, sure, why not? If you’re reading for pleasure you’re still getting the essence of the story – unless you fall asleep ‘reading’ as I often do 🙂

    I think the times when I want to read with my eyes, are when I need to study something, or maybe in situations where I want to go back and see how a name is spelled.

    I still love paper books, but audiobooks have allowed me to “read” so much more that I would otherwise!


    @Brigit–Thanks for that insight about the history of reading. I really had not thought or known that. I love the fact you brought in we first experience reading from someone reading to us. Sensory experience is important and the more ways and venues you do that the richer the experience. I think it includes many more people and that is always a good thing.


    @Brigit–Thanks for that insight about the history of reading. I really had not thought or known that. I love the fact you brought in we first experience reading from someone reading to us. Sensory experience is important and the more ways and venues you do that the richer the experience. I think it includes many more people and that is always a good thing. Once again thank you. 🙂

  12. Brigit

    As Theano was saying, reading has a broad definition, nowadays and in the past. Throughout the Middle Ages reading was done out loud (hearing) and it was thought that if you were in physical contact (touch) with the work, whilst reading (i.e. hearing and sight) it, you would gain a better understanding of it. It was not until the thirteenth century when internal reading was introduced and it was though to have been improper at the time.

    But the question of the correct verb when it comes to audiobooks is interesting. You could argue that listening to an audiobook and subsequently saying ‘I’ve read the book’ is like saying ‘I’ve read the book’ whilst in fact you’ve only seen the film. I think this distinction is more clearly defined nowadays, as it should be and, I believe, anybody who likes to read would never say the latter if they do not plan to finish that sentence with that after having seen the film they now plan on reading the book(s).

    As a child, parents often read to you and therefore, you don’t do the reading, but listen to the book being read (even if you could read yourself at the time). Does that mean, however, that you have not read the book? I would say no, you did read the book in the sense that you’ve heard the story.

    I often listen to audiobooks whilst reading along with it and I really enjoy doing this. In my opinion, the more senses you use the better the experience. When I read and listened to the Hobbit, a few years ago, I had such a great time listening to the reader singing the songs in the book!

    I think it has everything to do with what someone’s personal aim of reading is.
    Is it only reading/hearing the story quickly and move on to the next book as if you’re working down a list, but not remember what you’ve read in the long run apart from the title and main events? Or do you judge the author’s writing style, his characters, etc. while you read/listen and appreciate the melody of the words? And it then depends on which of the senses you prefer to use when you do what you consider reading.

  13. HuffmanHanni

    I usually tell people I listened to the book on my MP3 player but honestly, I think if I just told people I read it, they wouldn’t call me out on it. I “read” ‘A Brieft History of Nearly Everything’ before Christmas and decided to get the actual book for my father-in-law. Worked out great for him.
    I love “reading” audiobooks. It took some getting used to and what I find is, sometimes I get more emotionally out of it than if I sat down and read the book. Depends on who’s doing the reading.
    I do it at work since I have a mindless job and it’s a great way to read while at work so it makes my day a bit happier. I’m surprised at how much information I retain even though I’m condensing the “reading” experience into a few hours rather than days or weeks. The only problem I’ve ever found is when I try typing an e-mail; doesn’t work well when someone is babbling in your ear.

  14. havingfun

    I do appreciate all the comments, but…reading is reading, listening is listening. I read print. I listen to sound.
    Doesn’t matter. Enjoy both!

  15. guidedogbob

    Of course you can read an audio book! I’m virtually blind, and haven’t been able to read print in 17 years. the only way I CAN read is through the spoken word… whether it’s a commercially-produced audio book or the synthetic voice my computer uses. this, coincidentally enough, is called screen-reading software. When I lost so much vision in 1995, I believe one of the greatest causes of the ensuing depression was my inability to visually read. Discovering an alternative method set me on a quicker recovery than I could have believed. Besides, as I love to say, I can be up to my elbows in dish water, grooming my dog, or planting my gardens and still manage to read at the same time. try doing THAT with an 1100 page Steve king tome in your hands!

  16. OKC Jim

    I’ve never listened to an audiobook. That’s not the result of taking a stand against them – just have never taken the step to do it. The beauty of the written word, especially fiction, is the ability of the reader to fill in any gaps in the framework of the words with his own mental pictures. No matter how tightly written a piece is, those gaps exist – and readers go away with different details because they fill in with different experiences of their own.

    I would think the comparison between listening to a book vs. reading the book would be hard to generalize. My first thought was that hearing a book read by the author would be fantastic. Even a great wordsmith can add nuances in audio that might be difficult to get into print – much like I mentioned above. Second thought – just because an author can put words together brilliantly on paper doesn’t mean they can express them brilliantly in audio, and a third party reader might, or might not, introduce the nuances that the author felt while creating the story. Though “reading” an audiobook is far better than not experiencing the book at all, I guess I’m inclined to stay with the old fashioned option of creating my own pictures as I read.


    The definition of reading is broad in the real world. I originally had an educator’s background and depending on your perspective I agree with most every comment. Oral story telling is the foundation whether we end up as educators or writers or doctors or lawyers etc. It depends on your circumstances, level of education and needs. A reading class has everything from phonics, to whole story, to visuals, to reading text, listening to text, interpreting text–all classified as reading. You are able to read because at least 12 teachers took the time to teach you the skills. 🙂 When we get in to our adult world and careers then the definition becomes narrower according to our experience. You could argue either way. You could narrowly define it as you need it. I would tailor my definition to the person or audience I would be speaking to. Writers most likely want a specific definition and delineation between reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Average person you say read it is good enough. That is my preference–my second choice would be to say what seems appropriate to me and if who I am talking to wishes to discuss further then I would accept that invitation. Oh and by the way other then education training few people know that there are 5 to 6 language registers and what words and definitions you use depends on the context of the situation and the register needed. It is why one needs to be flexible–have an opinion–but always be open to the other possibilities. One should always try to see the world through the other person’s eyes. 🙂

  18. jucasey

    Here’s one definition of “read” – To receive or comprehend (a radio message, for example): I read you loud and clear. So, I’d say yes, you can read an audiobook.

  19. ADLawrence

    I’m glad you brought this up, it’s a question I’ve asked myself whenever I listen to an audio book and later share details about it with friends. There are two reasons why I believe reading and listening are not interchangeable terms when talking about an audio book.

    When I listen to a book, my brain isn’t taking in the information in the same way it would if I read it word-for-word. They are simply two different ways of communicating. If I read something, I remember more of it than if I listen to it (it could be vise versa for you). This is related to the idea that when you are in class and listen to the lecture, plus take notes, you’ll most likely remember more.

    Also, on the note about movies. Many audio books are recorded by professional voice actors. I actually knew several people who read books as a living and all of them have formal training in acting (though it isn’t always required). So, though an audio book does not have the same budget as a movie, it is an artist’s interpretation of the work. Some authors will also read their book aloud and that’s marvelous, but it is still an interpretation … be it the creator’s interpretation.

    Thus, I usually say, “I heard a good book recently.” Or, “I read a good book recently.”

  20. lisaahn

    I love the comment above, linking audio books to the original oral tradition of storytelling. When I listen to an audio book, I still get to imagine the world and the characters. Audio books also call for a different level of attention — if my attention wanders, I’ve lost half the story. As a writer, it’s a fabulous experience to have to track plot lines, character shifts, etc. only by listening. I feel like it works a different part of my writer’s brain.

    Audio books also highlight the cadence and the musicality of language. Again, in terms of writing, it’s really helpful to listen to a good book narrated by a good reader. The audio version of Broken for You is especially lovely. Or Neil Gaiman reading Neil Gaiman — you can’t beat that.

  21. jdietzel-glair

    Of course you can “read” an audio book. I believe this is akin to the original oral tradition — you know, people sitting around a campfire listening to the local storyteller or bard. Your eyes might not be working, but the rest of your storytelling parts are working. Your brain is imagining what the characters look like. You still have to keep track of the plot line. Plus, your ears get to be part of the fun.


  22. jmiff328

    I’ve never “read” an auido book. My father has been listening to them for as long as I can remember. He calls me and says “I just read a great book.” If I was currently listening to the book, I would say “I’m listening to a book right now.” After the book has ended it makes more sense to say “I read a great book last week.” I hope that makes sense.

  23. FlashUber

    Read: to utter aloud or render in speech (something written, printed, etc.): reading a story to his children; The actor read his lines in a booming voice.

  24. QuinnCreative

    After listening to an audiobook that has fascinating information, I frequently go out and buy it, so I can mark pages and get quotes. Reading it again gives you different information. Like you, I listen in the car. Having a book read to you is not like seeing the movie of a book–that’s the filmmaker’s interpretation of the visual elements s/he finds compelling. Listening to a book gives you every word as the author wrote it. And unless I’m speaking to a lawyer, I say I read the book.

  25. elclipo

    I tell people I read them, although sometimes I put the air quotes around it if they know I read paper/electronic books in tandem with the audiobooks. I only specify that it is an audiobook when my opinion about the book has been influenced by the reader and not the content.


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