Listening to books is not cheating

I hesitate to admit this in polite company, but if I didn't listen to books, I wouldn't read at all.

I have a daily commute that is almost an hour in each direction and for many years have spent the rest of my time driving kids hither and yon.


During that time, I bet I "read" 500 books. Books that I would not have had the time nor the inclination to read if I had had consumption or two broken legs.

I used to keep a numbered list of all the titles (another thing I shouldn't be admitting), but I lost the list in the computer somewhere around book No. 200, and that was years ago.


But a recent article in The New York Times echoes the bigotry that caused me to quietly withdraw from my book club. (I couldn't compete with the lovely dinners the other members served each month, either.)

There are a lot of people who think listening to a book is cheating.

I thought it was just my book club, but apparently there is a real schism in book groups over the issue of whether you read the book or have it read to you.

And I thought abridged was cheating.

To settle this, I went to a higher authority: Carla Hayden, executive director of Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library.

"No, it is not cheating," she said. "In fact, I think we should appreciate the fact that we have so many ways now to enjoy literature."

Any such distinction, she said, makes reading seem like a chore and a book something to be suffered through.

"Does that mean if you don't plow through the pages, you didn't experience the book?" she asked.


Recorded books started as a service for the blind. Now it is an $871 million industry, including downloads, CDs and cassettes, according to the Times.

And libraries are among the biggest customers as they respond to the demands of their patrons.

Hayden says the Pratt has increased its purchases of recorded books because they are so popular.

"More and more people are realizing the quality. And some of the narrators are like rock stars. They have a cult following for anything they read."

Often, the books are read by the authors themselves, creating a relationship with the "reader."

I am not sure if it was the sound of Kaye Gibbons' gentle and breathy Southern lilt or the words she had written in Charms for the Easy Life that made me such a devoted fan.


"To hear an author read it can be magical," said Hayden. "You can hear the voice the authors were hearing in their heads when they were writing those words."

Certainly, there are some cognitive differences between hearing a book and reading the words in it. We experience it differently depending on which part of our brain is lighting up.

But, as Hayden suggests, the pictures in your head are probably going to be the same.

"Your imagination is still going."

There is nothing I would like better than to curl up under an afghan on a rainy afternoon and spend three or four hours with a good book.

But I'd probably fall asleep inside the first 10 minutes.


Life being what it is, I will take my books where I can get them and my reading time when I can - out of the dashboard of my van, on the long ride home.

It's not like waiting for the movie to come out.

That would be cheating.