Some Thoughts on “Real Reading”

read-all-the-thingsI am sure I am not the only librarian who has repeatedly heard the phrase “real reading.” Whether I am in the midst of a readers’ advisory interview with a parent who insists that audiobooks are not “real reading,” or whether I’m meeting someone new in a social setting who proudly tells me they never read e-books because that’s not “real reading” and being a librarian I must agree with them, I always cringe at the phrase. I have no problem with readers having a particular preference. Everybody has their own inclinations towards specific formats. What bothers me is the complete lack of exposure that youth may suffer due to a parent’s bias against particular formats, or readers of any age feeling inferior and self-conscious about something as individualized and personal as a reading choice.

As library workers, I don’t believe it is our place to promote any format over another, but I do feel that we should provide our patrons exposure and access to as many formats as possible and strive to validate all reading preferences. Below are some topics that often incite the dreaded phrase “real reading.” I hope that by sharing some of my own experiences, I can either encourage you to broaden your reading horizons or at least give you and, by extension, the patrons you serve, something to think about.


Photo by Flickr User jeff_golden
Photo by Flickr User jeff_golden

I like to lightheartedly refer to myself as an audiobook evangelist. I often recommend them to patrons with long commutes or parents of children who say they can’t find any time to read.  My love of audiobooks, however, stems from something much more complicated than convenience. I am a slow reader. I often feel like I am in the minority within the librarian and broader bibliophile community (though after reading “On Being a Slow Reader” I feel less alone). It was only in the past several years when chatting with a friend that I realized I read so slow because I read the book aloud in my head, pausing at appropriate moments, hearing pitch and accents.  This makes for a wonderfully rich reading life, but since I am actually incapable of not hearing every single word aloud in my head, it makes reading to a deadline extremely difficult. This became painfully clear in graduate school as I struggled to complete my assigned reading. At the same time, though, I was commuting several hours a week and falling in love with audiobooks. Listening to books felt right to me since I was already reading aloud in my head. Plus, as a slow reader, I was able to read more books in audio than print.

A few things for you (and the parents and youth you serve) to keep in mind about audiobooks:

  • Audiobook narrators can enhance a reading experience with their performance.
  • Struggling or slow readers may feel less intimidated by listening to audiobooks.
  • Parents who insist their child read in print may be open to the idea of having them follow along in a print book while listening to the audio version.
  • Not all readers are capable of reading a print book. Blind readers and readers with physical disabilities that prevent them from holding a book rely on audiobooks. Make sure to keep your patrons are aware of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped and their cooperating libraries specific to your state.

Comics and Graphic Novels

One of my teen volunteers confided to me that his mother does not think comic books and graphic novels are “real reading.” His response to her was, “they are called comic BOOKS and graphic NOVELS. If they aren’t real books, why would those words be in the name of what they are?” I thought this was a pretty good argument. All too often though, I find that to be a prevailing opinion of parents at the library. I’m not sure exactly where this notion comes from, but being a recent convert to comics I have a few ideas. It wasn’t until about five years ago that I started reading comics. I didn’t read a graphic novel until one was assigned to me in grad school at age 23. I think my reluctance to start came from a few commonly held myths surrounding the format. First of all, a lot of readers, myself included until very recently, don’t see comics as a format, they see them as a genre. They see them as a genre composed entirely of superheroes. Comics as a format contain a lot more than capes and tights. Many parents also think that comics will not help improve their child’s reading skills since they are predominantly pictures, but some comics are very text heavy. This assumption also ignores how appealing comics can be to reluctant readers. Reading improves with practice and increased practice comes with increased appeal.

A few things for you (and the parents and youth you serve) to keep in mind about comics:

  • Comics are a format, not a genre.
  • Comics featuring much beloved characters can serve as a great starting place for children and teens that have no idea where to start in their reading.
  • Comics adaptations of prose novels (such as Percy Jackson or the Infernal Devices) may lead a child or teen to read the prose novel. This may help ease a parent’s skepticism regarding the format.
  • Particularly in rural towns, the library may be the only access that readers have to comics.

I hope I’ve helped to expand your reading horizons or perhaps encourage you in your love of a particular format. As library workers let’s promote the idea that “real reading” is in the eyes (or ears) of each individual reader.

-Emily Childress-Campbell, Currently reading She Is Not Invisible by Marcus Sedgwick

6 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on “Real Reading””

  1. I would add that audiobooks are wonderful for people of all ages with learning disabilities that make reading difficult and unpleasant. A member of my family has rediscovered reading thanks to audiobooks. He can read print, but it’s a slow, laborious, exhausting process–definitely not relaxing or fun. Exposure to the richness of human experience (and the natural world and great stories and… ) through books is what matters–not the format through which that exposure happens.

  2. Was first introduced to audio books when my late husband developed vision problems and started getting books from the LIBRARY FOR THE BLIND AND PHYSICALLY HANDICAPPED. I immediately loved them because I could listen while I was doing something else, like cooking or driving. In 1975, those were the only audio books I knew of. By the 1980s, the library I worked for (Cuyahoga County Public Library) was buying them, and I started picking titles for myself. Altho I’m not a slow reader, I do find that I can listen/read more titles thanks to audio books. When I was in charge of buying books for adults and teens for the system I always looked for large print and audio versions. CCPL included those alternates in the book discussion sets as well. The more people who can participate in reading, the better! The first stories were oral, as were the first poems. We are carrying out a tradition thousands of years old when we are able to share stories and information with the most people possible.

  3. It’s not been all that long a time since reading has become an individual pursuit – up until quite recently reading was often a group activity where one or more individuals took turns to read aloud and elderly care home residents are often read to by volunteers. Think too, of the monastic traditions where the religious community are read to from the Bible while dining. We praise and maintain the tradition of story time and reading aloud to children yet when it comes to adults we seem to shy away from being read to.

    Listening to an audiobook is no different to gathering around to listen to a radio serial broadcast as many families used to do (remember there was a time before television). Limiting true reading to only the printed word is a short sighted and discriminatory practice that denies so many people the joy of an authors work and restricts their ability to develop both skills and confidence to embrace our amazing literary heritage.

  4. I could have written this myself. I started listening to audio books when I started getting into running and then had an hour and a half commute to grad school once a week and half hour commute to work. I had no idea until recently that I was in the minority in how I hear what I read in my head as if being spoken out loud. I swear, almost every word of this sounds like me.

Comments are closed.