Island Senior: Books or audiobooks?

By Peggy Sue McRae, Journal contributor

Books or audiobooks, is one or the other a better choice? Since I’ve been participating in the Mullis Center Book Club, I’ve listened to our book club choices more often than I’ve read them. As audiobooks increase in popularity how do they change our experience of books?

One advantage of audiobooks is that you can do other things while you listen. This can also be a disadvantage. Distractions inevitably capture our attention while multitasking. The audiobook does not pause and wait for your attention to return but charges on ahead. When your attention does come back to the story you are likely to wonder how you got to where the story has progressed. It’s time to rewind. You may drift or doze off while reading a book but at least you will wake up where you left off.

Other than being more easily distracted while listening to audiobooks, studies have shown that comprehension is fairly equal to whichever mode you choose. My personal reasons for choosing audiobooks are that I read slowly, am probably a bit dyslexic, and this past winter when I had cataract eye surgeries audiobooks were a godsend.

Book lovers rhapsodize over the tactile experience of delving into a book often romanticizing the smell of paper pages. Holding a book in your hands does focus your attention on the reading process and can be a good reason not to try washing dishes or sweeping the floor at the same time.

Could it be that books retain an elite social status? For millennium, human beings evolved as storytellers and listeners. Storytelling is as old as language itself. Early books including illuminated manuscripts and early printed works were affordable only to extremely wealthy individuals and institutions. Could this contribute to our reverence for the printed page? Books are indeed treasures. Audiobooks are not sold in special editions or signed by the author.

Listening is more ephemeral. There is some evidence that, unlike reading, listening engages the right hemisphere of the brain, the part of the brain associated with music and poetry. Most people’s brains are able to create more vivid imagery through listening rather than reading.

Much can depend on the reader of an audiobook. Rhythm and tone convey information. Compare reading Shakespeare on the page to hearing it performed by a seasoned Shakespearian actor and unless you are a Shakespearian scholar yourself you will likely comprehend more by listening. An excellent reader, for example, Meryl Streep or Tom Hanks, may enhance a listener’s experience while a poor reader can have the opposite effect.

Whether you prefer audiobooks, eBooks, or hard copy you are very welcome to join the Mullis Center book club facilitated by the San Juan Island Library. We meet once a month, on the second Monday of the month at 1:15 p.m. and are currently meeting via Zoom (this could change). Please contact the library if you would like to join us. Our topic on June 10 will be “A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles.