What counts as reading?

Posted October 13, 2019 by Lory in discussions / 38 Comments

As I keep track of my reading, I have to make some decisions as to what makes it onto my list of completed books. Does it count if I skim or skip a substantial portion? What if I stop reading partway through and then take it up again — should I start over from the beginning? What about reading aloud, where there are often interruptions — my husband reads one night instead, or my son takes the book and reads part of it on his own? How about collections of essays, poetry, short stories and such, where sometimes there are pieces that just don’t speak to me and that I don’t want to spend time reading?

When there are are substantial gaps like these, I usually don’t count those books as “read.” To do so would make me feel guilty, as though I were perpetrating some deception. But am I being too strict? Do I have to read every single word of a book in order to put it on my list? Do you have a rule of thumb in these cases — a percentage, or a page count that you could skip and still consider that you’ve read the book?

Then there are format questions. Some people seem not to consider audiobooks as “real reading,” which I think is nonsense. Yes, a voice actor has taken over some of the activity that normally goes on in your head, but you still have to pay attention and take in the words. The book comes alive in your imagination through listening,Β  just as much as when you process it by reading. Still, it is a somewhat different activity, even if we don’t have a different word for it in our language.

E-books raise questions for me as well. Of course this is just another way of taking in words on a page, so it’s certainly “reading” from that point of view, but after completing an e-book — especially a complex and many-layered one, like Awakenings — I often feel as though I haven’t really grasped it. When only one fragment is available to me at at time, the whole seems to slip beyond my reach. Can I truly say that I have “read” it, that I have gradually come into possession of that wholeness which is the book?

Trifling questions, perhaps, yet they nag at me. What are your thoughts? How do you decide which books to count as “read”?

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38 responses to “What counts as reading?

  1. An interesting point for discussion! I think one can pick up a book where one left off after some time if one remembers the story more or less.
    I dislike e-books and especially audiobooks. I don’t think I ever listened to an audiobook from the beginning to its end in my life, and I want to say it is not reading for me – for me personally. I don’t see why I cannot say this? You say “a voice actor has taken over some of the activity that normally goes on in your head, but you still have to pay attention and take in the words,” but where to draw the line when it comes to this “listening” activity? For example, if I turn on a film on a TV and then close my eyes, I will also take in the words and follow the story, and if that film is based on a book, I will know the story in the book, too, more or less, through the dialogues only.

    • I think to be exact, we would have another word for taking in an audiobook. Technically it’s not reading, but at least it’s the complete text (if unabridged). I don’t listen much to audiobooks either but if I did, I would count them. But you should feel free to not like or listen to them of course! Thank goodness, we can all follow our personal preferences around here.

      I would certainly not count listening to a film with my eyes closed. As mentioned in a comment to Chris below, a dramatisation translates much of the text into a visual medium. Too much would be lost.

      Just “knowing the story” is what I think Jeanne’s comment below refers to as “becoming conversant with the material.” It’s a degree of familiarity but except for specialized, academic purposes, I wouldn’t call it reading.

  2. Jillian

    On the question of audiobooks, if you read David Copperfield aloud with your husband, taking turns chapter by chapter, would you only consider that you had “read” the parts you read at the end of this experience, or at the end would you consider that you had read the whole book? This is how many Victorians experienced literature in the 19th century, and I doubt they would have said they hadn’t read the book if it had been read to them in a group setting.

    As for ebooks, I can see what you’re saying about being unable to easily switch back to sections within the book. But there is a search feature where you can go back and find a certain passage. Technically you have read the entire book; but possibly you haven’t fully experienced it as fully as you would have liked.

    So it seems like the question you’re really asking is, when you mark your books as read, are you satisfied with marking them as “read” because they’ve been technically read, are you marking them as fully experienced?

    I count those audio books and ebooks as completed reads, because I have read them. However, often I would then get a text copy of the book and Mark it as one I would like to revisit. Then I can experience it in a more hands on way. But I don’t consider that I haven’t actually read it if I’ve experienced the story in the medium of listening or ebook.

    I don’t tend to mark books that I skim through as something I have read simply because I only tend to skim through those books that I don’t actually care for: I’m quickly skimming to see if there’s anything in it worth reading. I generally find that there isn’t, and then set the book aside in disdain. I wouldn’t consider that a book that I’ve read, so much as one that I’ve examined and found not worth my time. I have quickly read through books that are due back at the library, and if I feel I’ve gotten a lot out of them even though I’m skimming, I do count those as read, but they usually go on my reread list to revisit when I have more time.

    • Jillian

      Sorry if my comment came out a little confused. I don’t have the use of my hands right now, so I’m having to speak all my comments into an audio feature on my phone! The question is, if I’m only speaking rather than typing, am I really saying anything? LOL.

      • Jillian

        To clarify what I mean about David Copperfield, I mean, would you consider that you had only “read” the parts of the books that you actively read aloud, and that you had not actually “read” anything that your husband read when it was his turn? Or at the end of the experience, would you feel that you had read the book? I would feel that I had read the book. It might be different from reading it in my head certainly, but no less valid. I read aloud with my mother all the time, taking turns, and I always walk away feeling that I’ve experienced the book. It’s just that I’ve experienced it in a social setting. That’s still reading! To my way of thinking.

        And what I meant about ebooks is, it sounds like you’re really asking “what does it mean when we mark a book as read?” Does it mean we have just technically dragged ourselves through the book, or does it mean we have fully experienced it? And then what do we all mean when we say we have experienced it? How far do we have to take this, should we analyze every line of the novel before we agreed that we have read it? Or is it enough that we have heard what the author has to say?

        That probably varies by individual.

        I’m also wondering if you’re referring to marking books as read on our personal list, or to rating books publicly that we’ve simply technically dragged our eyes over? I think that’s a whole different conversation. I would personally consider it improper to mark a book as read and rate it if I hadn’t actually given it my time, but if I feel that I have taken a good look at what a book has to say even if I haven’t fully immersed myself in the book, I would still mark it as read on my personal list.

        There’s also genre to consider. For example, it takes a lot more for me to experience poetry, as I believe the author intends me to experience it, than it would for me to experience a functional how to manual. I can drag my eyes over a how to manual and get as much out of it as I might taking it page by page, analyzing, and wasting my own time on thoroughness that isn’t necessary. I would still consider I had read the book even if I didn’t give it thorough attention. If I read a poetry book like that, I would feel that I had technically dragged my eyes over the book but hadn’t actually read it.

        So I guess my point is that this is a really big question with a lot of nuance in it, and it’s probably particular to each individual reader. If you don’t want to count a book as read on your personal list until you feel that you’ve actually read in hardcopy form, maybe you could put it on a list of books that you have tried and would like to experience more deeply later on.

        • I have the opposite response to you regarding public marking of books. I have reviewed and rated books that I had read just enough of to feel I could give a considered opinion! (I don’t do this often, but occasionally when I am obliged to do a review of a book I just cannot bring myself to complete.) But I would not count those on my personal list as read.

          I would count a book that I read aloud in turns, as with a book that was read aloud to me, live or via audiobook. I do consider listening to a text the same as reading, for the purpose of my personal list.

          You are making me examine my question in more detail. I suppose it does have the shade of meaning “how fully have I really experienced this text?” Even dragging my eyes over every word should not perhaps be enough. If I could only mark books as “read” when I felt I had fully taken them in, my list would be much shorter, and I would very likely have to read everything on it multiple times.

          But I’m not pushing myself that far. More like, “what counts as a first, complete reading that more or less takes in the whole text?” A certain amount of skipping or skimming could be permitted, but how much? I’m still not sure of that, purely for my personal purposes and without dictating to anybody else.

          I like the idea of making a list of books I would want to experience more fully later on. Let’s see if I can be organized enough to do that.

          Thanks for your thoughts, written, spoken, or in any other format! πŸ™‚

  3. I feel a little bit the same about ebooks! If I’m able to read them all the way through in one or two sittings, I typically feel fine about them, but if I read them the way I usually read books — 20 minutes here, 20 minutes there — I feel like I don’t quite have it. I definitely still count them as read, but it’s not quite as satisfying as reading a print book.

    As for short story or essay collections, if I try every single item in the collection, I count the book as read. Even if I skip some of the pieces, ultimately.

    • That is a good way to deal with collections, but something in me rebels if I try to count them as “read” when I have not read every piece! I suppose I just have to live with that.

  4. I teach three ways of reading: skimming, taking something in in depth, and becoming conversant with the material. Each method can be appropriate to different texts. It all counts, depending on your purpose.

    • Quite true, and I suppose what I’m asking here is about “taking something in in depth.” Those are the books I would put on my personal list as “read”, while the other modes of reading are useful at various times as well.

  5. Lizzie Ross

    What a great question, Lory! My first reaction is, “Really, who’s counting?”

    But then I can think of a few corollary questions to follow yours:
    — Is seeing a play the same as reading it? (No, but it’s a different way of KNOWING the story, so I’d say this counts, which means that listening to audio books counts as “reading”.)
    — If you don’t remember a book that you’ve read in the past, can you honestly count it as one you’ve read? (Yes, because otherwise how could you say you’re RE-reading that book?)
    — But then, if each subsequent experience of reading a book is different, is “re-reading” a misleading term?

    When I was teaching future teachers, I explained that reading was NOT simply decoding — I can decode Spanish text fairly well but understand perhaps 10% of it, so I’m definitely not “reading” it. There has to be some kind of emotional or intellectual response to the content, even if it’s argument and distaste.

    Thus, if you understand enough of a book to know that it isn’t for you and that you don’t need to finish it, then I’d say that you’ve read it.

    But, again, who’s counting?

    • Well, I’m actually just counting for myself, as I make lists of the books I read each month. I do not think anyone else greatly cares what I include or bothers about “cheating.” If I wanted to be precise, I could make “DNF” and “partially read” categories, but I don’t need to be so pedantic really.

      That is a good point about whether you can count a book you’ve completely forgotten! Something that happens to me all too often. And the difference between reading and decoding.

      Anyway, just something to spark discussion — at which it seems to have been a success! πŸ™‚

  6. How do I decide which books to count as β€œread”? These days it’s simple: I don’t count a book as read until I’ve reviewed it. That’s particularly so on cataloguing sites like LibraryThing (which, however, I haven’t updated for a year now) and Goodreads (where I now merely repost my blog reviews). There are, nevertheless, books I have read way back in time that are on the catalogues but I never got round to reviewing.

    But I think by putting ‘read’ in quotation marks you’re asking if audio books, dramatisations or ebooks count for my reading experience and the answer is no. I’ve seen classic adaptations on TV and film but would never see them as substitutes for seeing words on the printed page, and the same for legitimate drama. It’s all a tie-over from consistently taking notes for non-fiction, a habit which transferred seamlessly when I started reviewing fiction, first for magazines and then for blogging.

    But I’m not criticising other modes of ‘reading’ as illegitimate, of course, just that they’re not for me!

    • Okay, to clarify — I certainly would not count a dramatisation as “reading”; I’m talking about different ways of experiencing an entire written text. Dramatisations, even when extremely faithful to the original, are generally transferring a good deal from the verbal to the visual medium.

      There are those theatre renditions that include the entire text, even “he said” and “she said.” I’ve seen some of those and it was quite interesting. Would I count those as “reading”? Another question to ponder.

  7. I certainly regard listening to audiobooks as having read it. The text is being absorbed and understood – and for hundreds of years this was the only way the majority of the population were able to access any kind of literature, given literacy wasn’t widespread. I mostly read when going to bed, so it is often fractured – but so long as I understand the gist and can keep hold of the story flow, then I’m happy to consider the book has been read. Ditto if a story is read aloud by someone else and I’ve listened to it. And these days, it’s rare for me to read a print book as the huge majority of my reading occurs on my ebook – I certainly regard that as reading:). However, I appreciate that this is a personal decision and I think it has to be up to the reader as to what they feel comfortable with.

    • Yes, reading aloud was the original way of reading. I think the connection to oral language is valuable and important. That said, I generally am too distractible for audiobooks! I get lost and then can’t find my place again. That’s why I like being anchored in print, but that is a personal thing. I think any way one is able to appreciate a text is a good way.

  8. You can tie yourself up in knots with all these questions:)
    I do count audiobooks on the basis that I’ve experienced the narrative style, understood the plot and the themes. Sometimes the themes become even more apparent in audio than they do on the page and of it’s the author who is the narrator you get to understand the rhythm they intended rather the. The one you impose in your own reading.

    • I’m not a frequent audiobook reader myself but if I did read them I would count them on my list. It’s just another way to take in a text. Yes, the narrator can put in his or her own interpretation to some extent, but I don’t think that overpowers one’s own activity in listening. To me, it makes the most sense when the author is the reader. I like to hear their actual voice; it adds a dimension for me.

  9. Hmm, I start out fascinated by your blog, and the way it makes me think about my reading practices, then I read the comments, and find myself reassessing everything I’d thought. I don’t often listen to audio books, probably because most of the ones that have come my way have been abridged.
    I do occasionally listen to them on the radio, but I never think of that as reading. I shall have to think about that, now.

    • I totally forgot to discuss the question of abridgement!! I appear to be quite the purist and am loath to consider that I have read a book unless I have read the unabridged versions. Thus my reading of Don Quixote and Les Miserables, for example, in the past few years…I had read them years ago, but not the full text. In each case I could certainly see the motivation for abdrigement and there were parts I tended to skim over, but I was glad I could make my own judgments and not rely on someone else’s.

  10. This is such an interesting discussion! I always have these kinds of questions in my head when I read non-fiction books, because I’m more likely to just read chapters that interest me and skip over others.
    And I’ve been wondering lately about things like graphic novels, because there’s a lot less text. So far I’ve just been counting them, but somehow it makes me feel guilty, like I’m cheating on my Goodreads Challenge though!

    • Graphic novels, another format I forgot to bring up. And picture books! I tend not to count those because they are so short. Like short stories with pictures. A book has to have a certain length or weightiness as it were, for me to consider it. But it’s not a very rational criterion.

  11. These are questions that nag me too and I like thinking about them and hearing what other readers think.

    I would have answered differently a couple of years ago about audio and ebooks. I had to train myself in order to get the most from them. It took a little mental adjusting, but I now consider those experiences the same as having read a physical hardback or paperback book. Often after a little time, I can’t actually remember in which format I experienced the text but can remember the plot and/or the characters, etc.

    For audio, I can only listen if I am actually doing something physical that requires no thought (routine house or yard work, driving to work) and the book normally must be quite plot driven. Otherwise, I tune out and my mind wanders. For example, I tried to listen to The Wings of the Dove by Henry James and realized it would not work for me in audio. I had to read it in print. Also with audio books, I almost always have the text (either in ebook or physical form) to refer to just in case. I like to read the first few chapters of a book before I start listening to the audio to help ground me.

    I do draw the line at skimming. If I skim read, I do not count the book as read. Occasionally if I am ready to give up on a book I will skim read to the end. I also read chapter titles and if there are poems or songs in the text, I read that too (looking at The Lord of the Rings!). I would also not count a collection as read unless I had read every piece in it.

    • My son can’t abide the poems and songs in the Lord of the Rings. In reading aloud I give him the first and last stanzas and that’s enough. I also skipped them when I was a kid! Now, I’m less verse-averse. πŸ™‚

  12. I would also feel guilty if I counted as read a book I didn’t read or listened from A to Z. sorry for not helping here!! The question I ran into was actually for Don Quixote. Originally, I counted it as 1 book, as you can read it in 1 volume, but then, as I realized the book was really published as 2 separate entities, 10 years apart, I ended up counting it as 2

    • I also counted Don Quixote as two books. Considering its history, I think it should still be looked at that way — as opposed to long books like Les Miserables or Middlemarch, which were originally published in separate sections or “books,” but conceived as a whole. The author’s vision is important, and in the case of DQ he clearly wrote book I to stand on its own.

  13. What a great subject – always guaranteed to spark a lively conversation among booklovers πŸ˜‰ First off, anyone who says audiobooks aren’t “really” reading can get the heck out, as far as I’m concerned. Would they also say that books written in Braille aren’t “real” books? Complete nonsense. πŸ˜€

    I guess I tend to only count books I’ve read cover-to-cover – I’m not often a skimmer or a skipper – as books that I’ve “read” in the Goodreads-y kind of way. I think that’s mostly because I have a hang up about reviewing books I haven’t finished (and I’m a dirty completionist at heart). That said, I read a lot for uni and work, a lot of it is extracts and short stories and that kind of thing – I count that as reading, even though it wouldn’t necessarily be tallied in a “how much did you read this year” kind of way. Does that make sense?

    • Well, books written in Braille are “real” books that you read in the sense that symbols have been substituted for oral language. That’s why I would say listening to an audiobook is not technically “reading,” if reading means decoding such symbols. But to me it is certainly a legitimate way of taking in a text, and “reading” is still involved in the higher sense of comprehension.

      It’s interesting there is so much resistance to this idea from some; I still wonder about that. And when the text is taken a step further and performed (word-for-word, I don’t mean an adaptation) I don’t think I would consider that reading. Why? I’m not sure.

      • I guess I think of it an issue of how we value accessibility. I have relatives and other loved ones with vision impairments who read via audio, and they love books and literature just as much as I do, we engage with the love of books exactly the same way – I feel a bit defensive about the idea that they’re not “really” reading because they’ve accessed the books in a different format that caters for their physical abilities. And for people with dyslexia and other visual processing differences, audiobooks seem to me a completely real way for them to engage with books that might not otherwise be accessible to them. It makes me sad that there are segments of the book loving community that would devalue their love of literature or (even unknowingly, as I’m sure is the case for most) make them feel excluded because of that.

        It’s actually just occurred to me that I did a reading for uni a little while back about our definition of the “book” and how it’s transformed over millennia, going all the way back to stone tablets… if you’re interested, I’ll see if I can dig out a link for you? It had a really interesting broad historical/sociological perspective πŸ˜‰

        • Yeah, I just don’t know what that prejudice is about. To me, it’s the same in the end.

          I would be interested in the reading about the definition of the book. I actually started to write a post about “What is a book?” but I got tangled up in my own logic. I might get through it and be able to post sometime.

  14. I definitely count audiobooks and ebooks, but I’m stricter with myself about really reading the whole thing. I essentially never skip parts of a book, at least in part so I feel I can count them πŸ™‚

  15. I sometimes agonize over this as well, especially when I end up skim-reading part of a book just so I can call it “read.” This only happens with a book I’m not enjoying—it’s essentially my version of a DNF (I’m so not good at actually putting the book down forever without knowing what happened in the end and without feeling like I’ve finished). I used to agonize over whether or not to call those books read, but lately I’ve given myself more slack. Firstly, it doesn’t happen all that often, secondly, no one cares but me ( πŸ™‚ ), and thirdly, I’ve actually been amazed at how quickly I can skim-read a book and still understand 90% of what’s happening—of course, this probably wouldn’t work well with deeply philosophical books with lots of hidden meanings, but I honestly don’t read many of those—I doubt skim-reading would be very effective in that case.

    • I do think skim reading to the end of a book counts in most cases — if it’s, say less than the last quarter of the book, and not one of those deeply philosophical books with lots of hidden meanings. We all need to cut ourselves some slack sometimes.

  16. Blind people definitely count audio books and braille books read with their fingers so there’s that. πŸ™‚

    I don’t like audio books myself, but would count them as books read, even though I consider it being read to, not reading. If that makes sense?

    • I think there are two senses in which I could use “reading,” it occurs to me after all this discussion. One is “decoding printed text.” In that sense audiobooks don’t count of course. The other is “taking in, comprehending and engaging with a text in oral or written form.” Then Audiobooks, braille books, etc. would certainly count (and I think they should.)

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