Nothing anyone else thinks about your reading really matters

Hello friends. I’m not on Twitter these days but friends who know I love drama informed me that people have been arguing about whether you can be a good writer if you don’t read. And also about whether reading audiobooks ‘counts’ as reading. Both arguments have contained allegations of ableism: some people can’t read; some people used to read but can’t anymore; some people can’t read text, but can only read audio.

These arguments amuse me. It’s incredible how worked up people get over someone else denigrating their reading. 

The thing I never understand is, we aren’t in elementary school anymore. You don’t have to fill up a notebook with gold stickers for every book you read. It quite literally does not matter in the slightest what other people think about the amount or modality of your reading, because it’s an activity you do for entirely voluntary reasons! 

I understand these anxieties on some level I suppose. Readers tend to construct an identity around their reading (I know that I have!), and if audio ‘doesn’t count’ as reading then it’s somehow existentially threatening. Like you’re a fake, you’re not who you say you are! If you go into a crowd of readers, are you really allowed to hold up your head amongst them?

But here’s the thing, what’s the absolute worst thing that could possibly happen? You go to a convention of some kind and you’re like, “Oh I listened to that book last year” and the other person is like “hurr then you didn’t really read it, you’re not a real reader at all!”

Who cares? You know that you read the book. The point of reading books is the enjoyment you get from reading them, not all the trappings of ‘being a reader’. And if some significant portion of the population thinks your kind of reading isn’t real reading, then hopefully they’re not dicks about it (I’ve never found that people care that much, to be honest), but if they are, you can just rest assured knowing that they are wrong.

Because if you thought they were right, you wouldn’t read audio! 

Like, it sounds weird to say it, but I sometimes wonder if people forget that you don’t need permission to do what you think is right? You have (probably) both read books and listened to them, and if you think the experiences are similar, then great! That’s all the permission you need. Nobody’s else opinion really matters. 

The other aspect of the debate is peoples’ feeling that there is some kind of cultural cachet tied up in being a reader? That if you read 100 books a year, then other people respect you and are over-awed by you, and if they learned that you actually only LISTENED to those books then they’d think you’re somehow a fake.

I won’t deny there is cachet in being a reader. Most people watch mind-numbing television in their free time, or they browse Twitter endlessly, so they tend to respect anyone who’s capable of maintaining focus for a long time. But the level of cachet is extremely minor. In your adult life, it doesn’t really matter if people think you’re smart. It’s not school anymore. Nobody is giving out grades. You won’t get a lower rate on a mortgage because people think you’re a reader. It’s just a meaningless status competition that occurs largely in your own head.

And because it occurs in your own head, you are free to define the terms however you like! You can say, yes, the 200 books I listen to on audio are exactly like reading a book in text, and for the purposes of the meaningless status competition in my own head, those definitely count!

Now, I think one problem is that people know, in their heart of hearts, that listening to an audiobook and reading text aren’t exactly the same. I just read the first volume of Capital. I could never have listened to an audiobook of it. I wouldn’t have retained anything. So there’s clearly some comprehension difference there. But, then again, I also listen to audiobooks on 2.7x. When Rachel overhears it, she literally can’t comprehend a single word they’re saying. I’m not exactly prioritizing deep listening on audio. Nonetheless I consider audio to be ‘reading’. When I’m posting on this blog, I don’t take care to distinguish which books I listened to (eighty percent of them) and which ones I read with my eyes. To me, when it comes to the books I actually finish, the difference isn’t very important. For a while I debated whether I’d be willing to review a book that I’d ‘only’ listened to in audio. And while I don’t think I’d be willing to completely pan a book that I listened to at 2.7x, because that would leave me frighteningly exposed if anyone ever had problems later on with my review, but I’d certainly be willing to write a positive review of such a book.

When I see the vehemence of these conversations, I usually feel vague embarrassment for the people who take part, as if they’re breaking some general societal rule. It just seems unseemly for people to display so openly how much they cling to meaningless status markers. But of course it’s a societal rule that exists only in my own mind. 

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