There's an interesting article by Art Edwards in (at?) Quillette about the difference between reading a book and hearing it read: Listening to Literature—What We Gain and Lose with Audiobooks. It's rather long for online reading, but worthwhile if you're interested. The author wonders whether listening to a book really counts:
The one constant of my reading life is that I always want to read more. If audiobooks offered me nothing else, they offered me that.
Or did they? Was I reading these books? I didn’t know. A search online revealed a piece on the subject quoting Daniel Willingham, a psychologist from the University of Virginia and author of 2017’s The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads: “What you find is very high correlations of reading comprehension and listening comprehension.” In other words, one’s ability to listen well to an audiobook corresponds directly to one’s ability to read well—the issue is largely a matter of personal preference.
And preference is strongly affected by, so to speak, competence. The writer does most of his listening while driving, some of it involving long and fairly demanding non-fiction, and feels that he has understood these more or less as he would have done if he had read them. I could not do that. Not only would I not absorb the book, I would find the whole process unpleasant. I've often suspected myself of having a mild case of attention deficit disorder, though I think that would be an overly dramatic way of saying simply that my powers of concentration are low. (I think I'll just put the question of basic intelligence aside.) When I read something very complex, I have to make a more or less continual effort to keep my mind on it, even if I'm sitting on the couch at home with nothing and no one to distract me, and frequently have to re-read a sentence or a paragraph. It's a problem even with less demanding fiction, such as murder mysteries.
And while driving? No, impossible, not to be considered. Of course I would not read some of the stuff this guy reads anyway. Capital in the 21st Century by Thomas Piketty? On the face of it, unreadable in any case, even if it were not 800 pages long. But twenty-five hours on twenty CDs, while driving? I would only do it for a substantial hourly wage and on the condition that no one would ever ask me to demonstrate that I had understood it.
I can't help wondering if this fellow is a hazard on the highway when listening to such things. I find that any driving conditions much more demanding than continuing straight on a rural interstate with light traffic disrupt my listening. It's strictly fiction for me when driving, and it can't be very densely written. Even under the best conditions, it happens fairly often that I realize I've missed something--or, possibly even stronger evidence of distraction, am not sure whether I missed something or not--and have to back up for half a minute or so. But then, as I say, I'm easily distracted.
Just a couple of weeks ago I was making one of my fairly frequent drives to north Alabama and back, a 350-mile trip that takes at least five and a half hours (each way). I had borrowed two audio books from the local library, The Saint Zita Society by Ruth Rendell and Sacred Clowns by Tony Hillerman. The latter was meant as a sort of fallback, something I knew I would enjoy, in case the former was unsatisfactory in some way. And that turned out to be the case. I started the Rendell book. It opens with a gathering of people and immediately introduces a half-dozen or so characters. I was already somewhat distracted by having had several errands to run before I hit the road, and made the mistake of starting the book before I was out on I-65. I immediately had trouble getting the characters straight, and switched to the Hillerman (not his best, by the way, but I enjoyed it, as always).
But apart from my own limitations as to what can be enjoyably listened to I certainly agree with the author that listening to a well-performed book can actually be a richer experience than reading it. I mentioned one such last fall, Josephine Tey's The Franchise Affair (see this post). There have been a number of others: Lewis's "space trilogy," Brideshead Revisited, several of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels, various English mysteries. You'll note the common thread of Englishness in all these. I'm not sure whether it's the gifts of the actors doing the reading, their ability to voice characters differently and effectively, or just the fact that they aren't reading in the colorless voice which is what I get when I read them in print. Mostly the former, I think. I can't offhand think of any American books read by Americans that gave me quite the same striking coming-alive sense as the English ones.
On the other hand, as the Quillette writer also notes, a reader you don't like can spoil or at least get in the way of your enjoyment of a book. There was an element of that in my reaction to Cormac McCarthy's The Road. And on another recent trip I listened to a thriller by Lee Child (Night School), and although I found the book entertaining enough for the most part, the reader had some mannerisms that I found annoying enough to discourage me from choosing anything else by that author read by that reader. Though now that I think of it, it was also this book that caused me to write a brief blog post complaining about cringey sex scenes in novels.