Etymology Linguistics Usage

Can you “read” an audio book?

Q: I believe you can “read” an audio book, but some people insist you can only “listen” to it. They feel that engaging in a book with your ears is inferior to using your eyes. What’s your take on this? And what about books written in Braille?

A: In our opinion, reading and listening are different experiences, though we don’t necessarily see one as better than the other.

And by reading, we mean interpreting a written text, whether with the eyes or the fingertips.

As you know, much of the ancient literature that’s survived into modern times was preserved in people’s memories and recited to generations of listeners, until at last it was committed to writing.

But the listener and the reader have different ways of engaging with that literature. Listening can be profoundly absorbing, of course. But it’s absorbing in a way that’s different from reading. 

Listening requires two people—one to recite and one to listen. Reading is more solitary; the only “voice” you hear is your own.

In an audio recording, for example, the voice (often an actor or other professional) might supply interpretive nuances that the reader of a book would have to supply for himself.

That’s what we mean by different ways of engaging. And that’s why we would have to say that one doesn’t read an audio book—one listens to it.

Interestingly, the verb “read” meant a lot more than to take in written words when it showed up in the early days of English.

In Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, “read” also meant to consider, interpret, discern, guess, discover, and so on, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In other words, the process of reading has always meant something more than merely taking in words with our eyes.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) points out that English is “one of the few western European languages that does not derive its verb for ‘to read’ from Latin legere.

In an etymology note, the dictionary says the Latin verb for read gave the Italians leggere, the French lire, the Germans lesen, and so on.

Read comes from the Old English verb raedan, ‘to advise, interpret (something difficult), interpret (something written), read,’ ” American Heritage adds.

It seems that Anglo-Saxons also felt that reading was a more involved way of taking in information than listening.

In saying this, we’re not making a value judgment about reading versus listening. We’re merely recognizing that the experiences aren’t the same.

So how do the two of us experience them?

Well, we find ourselves more engaged by words on the page than by words in an audio book.

After all, we can listen to an audio book while driving, though perhaps the driving should get all of our concentration!

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