Hating On Audiobooks Is Pretty Ableist
I'm a very slow reader. At most, I read around two books per season, and half of these books come in audio form. I love reading paperbacks, but it takes a large amount of time. For busy people like me, or for disabled people who can't see the written page, or can't physically hold up a book, audio books are vital. Yet despite this simple concept, there is a nasty attitude about listening versus reading floating around the reading community. Rather than viewing audiobooks as a different way to enjoy books, listening to audiobooks is “cheating,” and they don't count as “real reading.”
It's such a prevalent issue in the reading community that makes audiobook readers constantly defend themselves. BookTubers such as AclockworkReader, Chelseadolling, and BooksWithEmilyFox have all uttered some variation of the words “I know people consider audiobooks cheating but...” and go on to defend their love of audiobooks. There's nothing wrong with defending yourself of course, but its such a shame BookTubers have to constantly mention the unjustified stigma.
Forums are also packed with judgmental commentary that shames audiobook listeners for merely existing:
Why Does Reading Come With A Superiority Complex?
Those who prefer physical reading may defend their anti-audiobook perspective by saying something like “But hey, when we're calling people cheaters, we're not referring to blind people, we're talking about perfectly abled people who just can't be bothered to pick up a real book!” Okay, but where do you draw the line? Who counts as “disabled enough” to deserve respect for listening to audio recordings?
Dyslexic folk, people who get migraines or joint pain; these are the people society tends to forget about when they throw around the word “lazy.” Tons of Dyslexic folk read from huge books every day, but there-in lies the issue of preference. Just because you technically can read physical text, doesn't mean you should be forced to if you want to enjoy a story.
With all of this in mind, I took to various community Facebook groups to talk to disabled and fellow neurodivergant folk about their thoughts on audiobooks. I asked them about the audiobook stigma, and how the haters make them feel. Lefa Singleton Norton, arts worker from Melbourne Australia, talked me through the importance of audiobooks. She writes
“Audiobooks are ideal for days I am stuck in bed, unable to handle the cognitive load of interacting with the world.” she said, “It’s easier for my system to take in a single input - sound - than to manage the multi-input of reading myself, where my brain has to work harder to interpret the visual language. I have definitely been subjected to people telling me it’s not really ‘reading’ which smacks of a total lack of understanding not just about disabilities, but language and communication.”
This is harmful for many reasons, not just because it puts people off using audiobooks, but because it shines a light on society's hated of learning disabilities. The more we stigmatize technology made to help disabled and neurodivergant folk, the less likely society is to create more of it. Go to any tech video or article on a cool new invention and you'll get a handful of comments bemoaning about how the inventors are promoting laziness or wasting money. When critique like this is loud enough, it overshadows the support for funding or creating new versions of the device.
Clearly, a lack of understanding is definitely partially at fault for the stigma, particularly when it comes to deciding what does and doesn't count as “real” effort.
Science has busted the 'cheating' myth already
Scientifically, it's actually been proven that listening to audiobooks uses the same mental processes as physically reading does. That's not to say there aren't subtle differences here and there, but research has shown that people can be just as involved in the listening process as the reading process. It's actually been proven for decades that the brain comprehends auditory and written words with the same level of understanding. Researchers Kintsch and Kozminsky conducted a study in which 48 individuals were asked to summarize three 2000 word tape-recorded and written stories. Equal comprehension of each story was found regardless of whether or not the participant listened, or physically read the story.
And for those who are audio learners as opposed to visual, listening to audiobooks can be more beneficial for their learning preferences.
I understand people need science as proof, but ultimately it's exhausting and depressing to be required to prove something so innocent and simple. Preference should be enough, the stories of disabled people having a medium that suits them, should be enough. There should be no stigma attached to something as inoffensive as listening to a novel.
Simply having a preference isn't a problem. It's okay to dislike something, even hate engaging with it. The issue stems from going to the extreme of mocking people for liking it. Audiobooks simply aren't for everyone, and for some (particularly visual learners) they may find it difficult to concentrate on the story as much as they would if it were on paper. Deaf folks also have no use for the concept, or people who have sensory issues, like freelance writer and editor Shannon L. She writes:
“I get sensory overload and thus can't comfortably listen to audiobooks. One of my auditory difficulties is listening to one voice speak with no real break in dialogue. It's hard for people to understand, and I feel like I'm being dismissive of their suggestions to listen to audiobooks, when of course that's not the issue.
This stigma is so pernicious, that for people like Shannon who mean no disrespect to those who enjoy audiobooks, folks who do mean disrespect have given her a reason to add a disclaimer to her preference. It's so exhausting to have to defend your love of audiobooks, or your justified dislike of them, all because a group of people like to think they're superior for picking up a wad of paper.
Physical reading is viewed as some sort of achievement that only the most dedicated readers excel at. While physical readers can spend a month reading the whopping 1,138 pages of Stephen King's 'IT', their friend is finishing the audiobook of the same novel in under a week. All due to the fact they got to listen to the recording at one and a half speed, while they showered, cooked, and washed their car. This ease of access, to the those who prefer physical reading, perhaps comes across as “not listening hard enough.” They probably didn't concentrate on every word, the book snob may think, they probably got distracted for most of the recording. They'd appreciate it more if they just slowed down and held the text in their own hands.
Though challenging yourself with a very long and difficult paperback book interests (and impresses) a lot of people, the idea that everyone has to do this to be a “real bibliophile” is straight up elitist. Turning reading into a contest to see who “reads better” restricts reading access to people who otherwise would be intimidated by such attitudes.
It's actually not that different to the video game hard-mode conceitedness that exists in the gaming community. There are actually people out there that believe a game isn't worth playing on easy-mode, or that gamers aren't skillful if they play on anything less than hard-mode. Audiobooks, in the eyes of book snobs, are the so called easy-mode of reading, e-books are medium-mode, and reading off of real paper is hard-mode. With that logic, hardcore survival-mode must be reading from stone tablets, in Latin.
Single player gaming and reading are both solo activities. The idea someone else is shocked by your choice of “difficulty” is such a bizarre concept to me. It's no one's business but your own how you read your chosen book in your own home. This obsession with demanding other people challenge themselves is very reminiscent of society's fear of unintelligence. Society is terrified of producing more children with learning difficulties, low IQ's, or any kind of special needs that make the parents “look bad.” And since reading has always been associated with intelligence, we fear that if we stray away from the written word, we will get less and less intelligent over time
What Reading Snobbery is Rooted In
Books are one of the few learning apparatuses that are still used from the 20th century. So in a way it makes sense that people are afraid of losing them. But no one ever said that physical books were going to die out as a result of audiobook and e-book popularity. They're not a replacement, they're an addition.
Part of this reading affectation possibly comes from anti-technology sentiments. It's the fear that technology is moving too quickly, and that society's youth will become obsessed with the latest gadgets. Not being able to relate to modern technology because you grew up with analogue devices is understandable. I can imagine it's pretty frightening in certain contexts. But to use that fear to attack individuals who need that new technology makes no sense, and doesn't help anyone.
We fear these “unintelligent” folk will be burdens, so we turn our fear into manipulative mockery. 60 percent of disabled children will be bullied in their lifetime, versus 25 percent of non-disabled children. These statistics show society's pure hatred of developmentally challenged folk, and micro-aggressions such as mocking them for listening to audiobooks is only the beginning of a lifetime of stigma.
This is obvious elitism at play, but it also shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how our minds learn and develop. Just because the written word was all we had for centuries, doesn't mean it's the only way we can learn. In fact, if we were to go back millennia, we'd see that we were all auditory learners once. We told stories out loud, we sang songs, we were always listening to audiobooks; but back then the speakers were our mouths rather than apple headphones. And as technology progresses further, we'll find new ways to learn, to read, and to adapt. This fear of change is not only unfounded, but also very possessive. And it goes way back.
Printed books were once reserved for the elite aristocracy because of how expensive they were to produce and manufacture before the advent of the printing press in the 15th century. Access to education was limited as well, so many children went without learning how to read. However, once the industrial revolution hit, the cost and difficulty of printing decreased dramatically. This caused elites to fear that their once exclusive hobby would be tarnished by the lower classes. They feared what would happen when they got hold of the information only the rich could previously afford to digest. This caused a massive possessive culture around printed books, and it seems that it still hasn't faded since. This is something Norton also touched upon during our interview:
“Let’s not forget books are technology too!” she continued, “When the masses learned to read, wealthy and privileged people bemoaned that it would be the death of Literature. Then they said it about radio. And then about ebooks. To valorise reading a paper book as the only pure and real reading is to roll up ableism, snobbery and classism in one ugly package. Whatever method you use to input a book into your brain, you’re engaging with the text, taking it in as part of yourself. The mechanics don’t matter.”
The obsession that difficulty and effort are interchangable, and that intelligence equals superiority will hopefully decrease as technology advances. If we can build devices that everyone can use, rather than just able bodied neurotypical folk, then we can all experience the same joys, and the same activities.
Ultimately, we know audiobooks aren't cheating, science and common sense proves that. But until we stop thinking about reading as a stressful challenge that makes us better than others, we can never truly click with the book community, or even reading itself.
Stephanie Watson is a feminist writer, editor, and zinester, who specializes in pop culture, and psychology. She is the EIC of Fembot Magazine, and a contributor to YourTango, New Normative, HelloGiggles, and many more.