Ears to Hear

In our book club, we delight in talking through the different ways we read. The question “do audiobooks count?” comes up frequently. Yes. Audiobooks count. You don’t have to take my word for it, a quick internet search will yield a lot of articles like this one at Forbes detailing the science and studies which seek to understand how readers read “best.”

One of the great things about our book club is that we often have kind, intelligent, and interesting disagreements. In a recent conversation about audiobooks, my friend Pastor Al asked a better question than we usually ask. He asked, “but are they different?” He was wondering if both styles of reading are equally valid, are they inherently different? If so, how are they different? Are they different in the same ways to all of us? This line of thinking evolved into an engaging debate. Is there a “learning style” component to reading? What is the true purpose of reading, the ability to retain or the ability to connect with what we have read? As usual, we had fun.

I had so much fun, in fact, thinking this through, that I thought that I would work some of my thoughts out in this article.

So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.” – Romans 10:17

Using the Bible as my litmus test for what things the Lord thinks are best, I reason that the Lord who gifted most of us with sight and hearing intended us to use both as fully as possible. Setting aside examples where one’s senses are physically hindered, I reflect on the fact that nearly all of God’s Word came from oral tradition. While the priests of the Old Testament and early church were able to read and write, in all of the centuries before the 4th century, God’s Word was shared almost exclusively through preaching. Of course this is because men could not read. But, even as man’s ability to read increased, the need for preaching has never diminished.

Today, in churches everywhere, the congregation assembles to hear the Word of God proclaimed. In social conversation, we bemoan that our culture has lost the ability to listen and truly hear. But the Scriptures admonish us to have ears that hear. Even in churches where congregants bring a copy of their Bible or, as in the case in Catholic churches, follow along in a lectionary, someone orally proclaims the Word so that no one might miss out on the goodness.

If God gives us every good gift to be used for His glory, it seems to me that we need to be mindful of how to train ourselves to use both our gift of sight and our gift of hearing as fully as possible. My reading buddy and I are almost done reading the first volume of Charlotte Mason’s Home Companion series. Charlotte writes passionately about the need to train our children’s eyes. She adjures mothers to teach their children to aim their focus on the natural world when walking out of doors. She instructs mothers to teach their children how to study a bird’s nest so that they may sketch it in their journal. Charlotte reminds us that we must form a habit of attention in all things. I believe that she is absolutely right.

Many critics of audiobooks cite anecdotal examples of audiobook “readers” having had poor retention, poor comprehension, or unpleasant experiences. As the Forbes article linked above queries, how much are these examples the result of our cultural bias towards visual training? I remember being taught to read early, and very rarely being treated to much oral narration. Were we, as a culture, ever truly taught to listen and listen well?

Some in our debate argued that it is a learning style issue. Some of us are naturally more predisposed to auditory learning than others. While I can appreciate this argument, I think that it gives visual readers a pass from having to learn to use those auditory muscles.

If the learning styles argument is true, how do we explain the huge numbers of auditory learners who were raised in a visual culture and who read visually because of their training? Using myself as an example, I prefer auditory forms of learning. I learn optimally when I couple auditory stimuli with a kinetic distraction. In other words, I do my “best” reading while I am folding laundry. A repetitive and mundane task turns down the volume on the other distractions in my mind so that I can focus on the audiobook or podcast.

Nice for me, right? But. I still believe in the value of visual reading. (If I didn’t, I wouldn’t communicate through a written blog or a text-based Facebook book club.) I think that both kinds of reading are equally valid but, in answer to Pastor Al’s question, they are different. Similar to how a mother parents differently from a father, a child needs both parents and parenting styles, we too need both visual and listening-based reading.

Reading with my eyes, versus my ears, is not easy for me. It is much slower, it is tiring, it is confusing, and often, the words jump around on the page making it hard for me to keep my place. However, when I am reading visually to read aloud (to my children, at church, or in prayer), my brain focuses better because I am hearing the words. Having the visual and auditory cues together allows for great comprehension. In fact, whenever I write an article, I talk out loud the entire time. I speak the sentence as I type it. Then, I read and re-read what I have written out loud to myself.

In my conversation with Pam Barnhill on her Homeschool Snapshots show, I mentioned that a great way for moms to sneak classics into their own reading diet is to choose excellent older children’s books to read aloud. Part of my reasoning for that is that when we read the written words of older authors, like George MacDonald, our mouths and our ears can sense the texture of the language. That sensation helps to cultivate our palette for richer reading. We will be more inclined to push through Les Miserables if we have trained ourselves to appreciate George MacDonald, or Andrew Lang’s fairy tales, or the King James Version of David’s Psalms.

As we enjoyed this exchange of ideas, it occurred to me that this is an entirely modern question… isn’t it? How many previous generations were able to even consider the differences between the two? Scarcity of books automatically eliminated the debate. It was about accessing the story for the gifts that it would give. Period.

Not to diminish the gift of visual reading (that is what all of us on this thread are doing right now to communicate with each other), but how much better are we today, as a culture, for all of our visual reading? What great advantages do we have? Is our canon richer or just bigger? Is our knowledge more grounded in truth or more distracted by facts? Are we more whole and healthy than older generations who relied almost exclusively on oral narration?

I argue that modern Americans don’t learn to listen early enough. As a result, we are losing out on the beauty and texture of oral storytelling. We spend a disproportionate amount of time teaching our letters and not nearly enough time reading aloud.

“Although I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink; instead I hope to come to you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.” – 2 John 1:12

Let us train our children to have eyes to see and ears to hear. Let us practice the art of using all of our sense so that we can harvest as much goodness as possible from our reading. Let us delight in stories spoken and leather bound.

If you are interested in learning more about audiobooks from Audible, please click here.

Read Aloud Majestic


  1. Shanna says:

    Yes. We are terrible, impatient listeners and it is a learned habit. Just because someone has a big strong muscular bicep doesn’t mean they should just use it for everything and let other muscles wither away, they need to bring muscles into balance by steadily increasing the strength of the weak muscle. This is a good habit for every aspect of life. How often I catch myself formulating what I want to say while the other person is still talking!

    When I think of listening I think of a tight rope or maybe monkey bars, we have to balance and hold a long complex string of thoughts in our minds and somehow synthesize it (hello narration!!) without falling. I have just started narration and my children knock my socks off with this. The younger ones are actually better at this! I wish I had been guided into this gift as a child!

    I have had to actually repent of my very fast reading, something that growing up I preened over. Wes Calihan said it’s something like wolfing down Thanksgiving dinner. In a time of scrolling , scanning and swiping I think anything that teaches a habit of attention is good. The last thing I thought of is praying. If we pray for guidance are we spending enough time listening for an answer?

    1. Sara Masarik says:

      Shanna, this is a beautiful reflection. Thank you for sharing. I agree completely. As Diane says, “consuming books” is not the same as “reading books”. The habit of attention has to be one of the most important muscles we can learn to develop.

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