Paper vs. plastic in the book world

Do you remember going to the grocery store and being asked at the checkout whether you preferred paper or plastic bags? I do, and being a conservation-minded biology teacher, I remember the discussion about which was better. Some folks warned that plastic bags should not be used as they do not decompose, while others lamented all the trees that would lose their lives just so that we could carry our groceries safely home.

This topic provided a rich opportunity for my students to consider this question from the perspective of energy use and environmental consequences. After all the research and conversation and productive (even heated) debate, the correct response to the question paper or plastic was… BOTH, as it depended on satisfying the purpose of the bag (did it do what it was intended to do) and what was done with the bag afterward.

This brings us to this week’s question from a parent who asks the following: “My son and I enjoy listening to audiobooks whenever we are in the car. He enjoys it so much that he is the one to ask that I ‘turn on the book’ as soon as we get in the car. Even though he likes the books, he is a reluctant reader. Is there a way I can use audio books to help him in reading?”

Thank you, kind reader, for your question, as it allows me to write about one of my favorite things — audiobooks!! By listening to audiobooks, you are supporting the development of his literacy skills and thus preparing him to become a better reader.

For the sake of transparency, I must share that I love audio books and thus what follows might not appear to be objective. In other words, if you have not tried out audiobooks (or other audio resources), I am going to try to convince you that you should. If you have listened to one or more and decided that it wasn’t for you, please read on.

I wasn’t always an audiobook fan. I believed that listening to a book was not the same as reading it: that it was akin to cheating. How silly! Whether listening to or reading a book, I still enjoy it, just as using paper or plastic allows me to get my groceries safely home.

My love of audiobooks was borne out of necessity. After retiring from Keystone Central, I began to teach graduate courses for teachers, and this required hours of travel by car to school districts across the state and beyond. The long hours on interstate highways were brutal, especially when I was tired from early morning departures and long days of teaching. It was audio books that helped me stay alert and made me a safer driver. For those who say that audiobooks distract them, I understand, which is why I never listened when in heavy traffic or unfamiliar urban areas. On the other hand, when I was sitting at a standstill on Route 80 because of construction, I was thankful that I had Stephen King in the car with me!

I have been asked, “What about books that are not read well?” my answer, I stop listening and switch to a printed or electronic copy. However, if I never listened to audiobooks, I would have missed many great performances such as the reading of the Harry Potter books by Jim Dale or Stephen Fry. The author Neil Gaiman reads his books and is masterful as he adds another dimension to his stories that would otherwise be missed. Two of my favorite Gaiman books are “Coraline” (much better than the movie) and “The Graveyard Book.” Lest you think that a book set in a graveyard would be scary or creepy, think again — I now smile when I drive by graveyards as I fondly consider the many interesting people buried there!

Perhaps you have heard that the celebrated actor Tom Hanks is now an author and his first book, entitled “Uncommon Type: Some Stories” is receiving rave reviews. This is a book that I look forward to listening to, as it is read by Mr. Hanks himself. A treat indeed!

Another benefit of discovering audiobooks is that I now both read and listen to much more non-fiction. To be honest, I was not a fan of non-fiction books until I listened to “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption” by Laura Hillenbrand. This book led me to many others such as Bill Bryson’s “One Summer: America 1927” and Jon Krakauer’s “Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town.”

But aren’t audiobooks expensive? Not if you borrow them from the library or better yet, download them to your phone by using the app Overdrive. The best thing about having them on your phone is that you can listen to them anywhere and anytime. Some of my best “reading” time has occurred while weeding the garden and cleaning the bathroom!

I would be remiss if I did not point out the wide variety of listening resources such as text-to-speech converters and podcasts (digital audio files available on the internet for downloading to a computer or mobile device). Podcasts can be found on virtually every topic from home improvement to comedy to politics to sports and from sources such as NPR, TED Talks, and This American Life. For children and teens, there are not only books but also everything from fairy tales to historical speeches. Finally, another personal favorite available in audio file form is old-time or classic radio broadcasts such “Gunsmoke,” “Johnny Dollar,” “Dragnet” and “The Shadow.”

To my fellow audiobook and podcast fans, why do YOU like audiobooks? What audiobooks would you recommend to others? What else do you listen to besides books? And, as always, what questions do you have? Write to me at Happy listening!

P.S. The most correct response to paper or plastic is bring your own!


Kathy Gephart is a mother, grandmother, wife, daughter, sister, graduate of Lock Haven High School, Lock Haven University and Penn State, educator of children and adults, volunteer and avid reader. She is the founder of Stone Soup Literacy whose mission is to build readers, one community at a time. Email Kathy at Stone Soup Literacy can be found online at