Education, On Reading

Audiobooks, Physical Books, and David vs. Goliath

Recently, reading Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath, I found myself coming to terms with my audiobook angst in a new way.

Audiobooks are a phenomenon woven into our family life since my children’s earliest days, and I’ve often mulled their pros and cons. This post from eight years ago is a good sample of the kinds of ruminations I’ve struggled with. Do audiobooks represent a net gain or a net loss in overall literacy? Do they cultivate valuable knowledge or chronic partial attention syndrome?

I’ve revisited the dilemma recently because my oldest, about to enter 11th grade, is still not a book geek — yet she is unquestionably a lover of the contents of books. She can read nonfiction with interest and absorption: history and science texts, oversized books about the Hubble or the desert or pretty much any geographical region that interests her. When it comes to fiction, her inner world is conditioned by and interconnected with stories, but a majority of them have come through read-alouds or audiobooks. Tolkien, Dickens, Austen, and Lewis quotations or concepts are common in our conversation. But to sit down with a novel and get lost for hours in its pages is alien to her nature. She is too hands-on.

I have been making up a reading list and lining up study guides for next year, and I have found myself asking whether there is any real value in making someone read the physical book vs. the audiobook. Isn’t homeschooling about customizing a student’s education? I have an amazing auditory learner, someone who can concentrate and retain large chunks of material that is merely listened to, without requiring the visual cues of the text on the page. Can she read with comprehension? Sure. But if she does not enjoy that, is there anything gained from making her read, say, Uncle Tom’s Cabin that way?

Back when Ben Carson was a new name, I read some about his past and learned that in medical school he found he didn’t learn from lectures. He hired someone else to go to class and take notes for him, and he got through medical school by studying the notes. Clearly it worked, since as a doctor he maintained a high level of success (more success than as a public figure or politician, certainly).

Similarly, Malcolm Gladwell writes about a highly successful man who was dyslexic and learned to compensate for tremendous difficulty reading by cultivating listening and memorization skills. The central idea of Gladwell’s book is that in the same way David’s “weaknesses” (small size, lack of armor, no training in hand-to-hand gladiatorial fighting) became his sources of strength and enabled him to beat Goliath, so our ideas about “strength” are shown time and again to be merely conventional; often “weaknesses” are key ingredients in success.

Can a “weakness” in — or at least, a lack of preference for — reading physical books become a strength? Can someone who doesn’t like to sit captive to the print on the page for hours still gain from books everything I have gained from books over the years — and perhaps even develop strength through that?

I am concluding that the answer is yes.

For one thing, concentration, auditory learning, and memory skills are developed more through audiobooks than through reading. My daughters both put me to shame with their ability to listen carefully for long periods of time, retaining what they hear even to the point of quoting it. They do not lapse into daydreams or bunny trails as I do. Later, after listening, they are capable of reflecting on what they’ve heard; but they have cultivated a certain discipline in waiting until after they finish listening.

For another thing, the things they do while listening have become major gifts. For example, Older Daughter has become a first class artist in all the hours she has spent drawing while listening to books through library cds and Librivox. You can see some samples of her artwork here:

I marvel at the patience, observation, detail and technique she has achieved in her work with pastels — but would she have cultivated this gift in silence? Would we ever know what an artistic gift she has if she had not had stories to keep her mind occupied and engaged while her hands and creative abilities were occupied?

I always remember this scene from the movie Amadeus, in which the great musician is composing a symphony with one part of his brain while his hands keep themselves occupied with a pool ball:

I have remembered the scene because it testifies to something true about the creative process. What does this tell us about cognitive activity? Can it be that concentration is not as dependent on being able to focus exclusively on one thing at a time as we assume? Could my bias toward reading physical books be a Goliath — a conventional, but not necessarily true, way of thinking about educational goals that can actually be achieved more effectively in other ways, at least for some people?

The last question is, will permitting audiobooks handicap someone for college? Will a student suffer consequences if their teacher doesn’t make them read novels, but allows them to listen to at least some of them, then work on the study materials using the physical book as a reference? I think not. For one thing, most such books can be found in audio form these days, many of them through sources like Librivox, others through the library or the self-reading mode on a Kindle. Who’s to stop any college student from using their resources? Secondly, in our homeschool, there are plenty of other texts that must be read outside of English class. I am not talking about replacing all physical books with audiobooks, only allowing some. Hopefully this will strike a balance.

If I felt that I was fostering a weakness by trying this approach, it would be different. But there is no problem with reading skills, just a preference for listening. I find that I want to preserve and encourage the love for stories and the life of the imagination without insisting on a certain medium through which these gifts come. We’ll see how it works.

3 thoughts on “Audiobooks, Physical Books, and David vs. Goliath

  1. I am intrigued by your thoughts, Janet.

    I have a young friend who just graduated from a robust online academy. He’s dyslexic and it takes him about 8x longer to read a page as it would a normal reader. He got through the academy with audiobooks. (He’s as winsome as they get, interested in everything.)

    I find that books I listen to don’t stick with me as deeply or as long as books I’ve read. That stopping and thinking bit is important. One exception might be when I’m driving long-distance alone on the interstate. I remember those books I listened to, often associating certain locations with a book.

    Your daughter’s art is fantastic! I’m eager to share it with my 12-year-old grandson who draws horses in his sleep.

  2. Dear Janet,
    As always, thoughtful and gracious. The comparison with Gladwell’s idea is a useful one, because we do indeed tend to privilege reading as a strength over listening, yet this is a relatively new ability for us culture-wide. And as we move more and more towards a post-literate culture, your older daughter may find herself in the majority in terms of how most people get most of their information.
    It seems interesting that she does “read non-fiction with interest and absorption.” Quite the opposite of Carson, I would guess. But with such a bifurcation between nonfiction and fiction, I wonder if other abilities are in play here as well? Perhaps learning styles are subject dependant? I would love to read your comments on this.

  3. Hmm, so fascinating! I have never thought of some of this before. I have noticed that while I love reading aloud, I don’t really like being read to nearly as much. Like you, I find my mind wandering. I do listen to podcasts and audiobooks, but only if I’m doing a task like exercising or washing dishes. And even then, I have to keep making myself focus. I find that most of my students enjoy read-alouds, but every once in a while I will have one who just doesn’t like them at all. I love the idea that your daughter’s art ability was developed this way. I do let my students draw and color while I read aloud, though I don’t let them read anything else or write. This really gives me something to think about. Thank you!

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