Stop the intellectual snobbery – of course listening to a book on Audible counts as ‘reading it’

Let’s face it, a boring book is worth a handful of Nytol, there’s no moral high ground to be won from wading through dense literary classics rather than listening to a few pages every night

Jenny Eclair
Monday 29 October 2018 12:15 GMT
What counts as reading shouldn't be reliant on whether or not you're physically turning pages
What counts as reading shouldn't be reliant on whether or not you're physically turning pages (Getty/iStockphoto)

People have always been snobbish about reading, parents of young children who are in the process of putting letters into words, soon get fiendishly competitive about who’s still reading out loud with a ruler under every line and who’s silently wolfing down chapter books, already moving on to Dickens “for pleasure actually”.

If I’m honest, I’ve probably been a bit snobby about reading myself in the past, very much judging people on the beach by the cover of the books they’re reading: Oh big, shiny, purple cover with embossed curly metallic title, hmm... not really my type. Oh look, a woman reading the latest Curtis Sittenfeld – my type – we could have lovely chats over margaritas about American Wife. Maybe she and her partner would like to come round to ours for dinner when we get back ... “Oh look darling, he’s reading Tom Wolfe, you like Tom Wolfe don’t you? We could show them our bookshelves.”

Because once upon a time, your bookshelf told a visitor all they really needed to know about you, and the rules were simple: the bigger your bookshelf and the smaller your telly, the more intellectual the household.

Back in the day, people who lived in Islington with a library complete with a chess set and cello permanently on display but absolutely no telly, were the inevitable top trumpers in this game.

It was all a nonsense of course, designed to mess with the insecure middle classes, who were never quite sure whether to hide their Agatha Christies. Fortunately, what with the introduction of Kindle and Audible, making these mad assumptions based on the spines of books (oh to colour code or not) is a thing of the past. Or is it?

This week in the papers and on Radio 4’s Front Row, there was a debate over whether listening to a book on Audible permitted you to say that you’d read the thing, or whether only sitting up by candlelight and reading the original parchment, preferably in old English, really counted.

Sixty-nine per cent of Front Row listeners saw sense and voted that “reading” audiobooks did count, although those against argued that listening to a book is a passive act that has been interpreted by the narrator and not the voice in your own head. Which, although a valid point, has connotations of “you lazy reader” about it. What I increasingly resent about the audiobook versus paper book debate is that there’s some moral high ground to be won from wading through every word of a literary classic and finding it really hard going but sticking with it, rather than listening to a few pages every night before you go to sleep. Let’s face it, a boring book is worth a handful of Nytol.

Oddly enough some people are still a bit strange about whether Kindle reading really counts too, as if the fact that you are not physically turning pages and struggling with an uncomfortable font size means that somehow you are cheating. “What you mean you blew the font up to size 22? That’s the size of a Janet and John book, therefore your reading age must be that of a five year old” – hmm. May I just point out to the sticklers here, that when my father was in a residential home in his late eighties, he had more or less given up on reading, but the gift of a Kindle from my brother switched him right back on; he did unfortunately develop rather a bad Jeffrey Archer habit but there was also one glorious month when most of the family were reading Apple Tree Yard.

Support free-thinking journalism and attend Independent events

I have always been a reader, living abroad until I was eight without a telly and competing with an older bookish sister, it was kind of inevitable. The whole family read. When we came back to the UK, I used to go to the mobile library with my mum and borrow books with clammy plastic covers and I remember learning everything I still don’t really know about sex from a Harold Robbins book I found in my parents’ bedroom.

Reading was my constant, although I did go through an ungrateful phase in my teens when I didn’t think that books really counted as presents. But I never stopped reading until I was 57 and my eyeballs dried up and suddenly reading normal book-sized print was uncomfortable – if I’d had any spare tears, I’d have wept.

A year on, with my dry eye under control (LipiFlow, ointment and drops) I still don’t read like I used to and not just because I need a larger font (Kindle can obviously do this), but because I have fallen deeply in love with Audible, and who can blame me?

In the past year, I’ve had the likes of Eleanor Bron, Emilia Fox, Adjoa Andoh, David Sedaris and Alex Jennings sitting on the end of my bed, at the edge of the bath, in my handbag via earplugs telling me stories, keeping me company, and let’s face it, doing “the voices” loads better than my mum ever did.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in