I remember taking a road trip nearly 20 years ago and wondering what in the world I would do during the 9 hours I’d spend in transit each way. I visited my father not long before I left, and he handed me three plastic cases from the local public library, each of which contained two or three cassettes. This was my introduction to talking books. Sure, as a child, I had books with songs or sound effects, but so did the neighborhood kids. Braille books were always available, but they were big and bulky and cumbersome to transport – if I finished the volume(s) I brought with me, I could find myself without reading material at all, and bringing more than one or two volumes would take up just as much room as a small suitcase. At eleven or twelve years old, those three plastic cases with their two or three cassette tapes were my entree into the world of a more portable reading solution.
Over the past twenty years, the world of audio books has changed drastically. From those first books – abridged, in my opinion, to their detriment – to the unabridged audio books on tape or CD that became popular (if costly) at the turn of the century, to the repositories of digital downloads for rent or purchase… no one can deny that audio books are here to stay.
When I first discovered Matthew Rubery’s “The Untold Story of the Talking Book” I waited for months to read it. Of course, I listened to it in audio format; it just seemed most appropriate.
About the Book
Histories of the book often move straight from the codex to the digital screen. Left out of that familiar account is nearly 150 years of audio recordings. Recounting the fascinating history of audio-recorded literature, Matthew Rubery traces the path of innovation from Edison’s recitation of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” for his tinfoil phonograph in 1877 to the first novel-length talking books made for blinded World War I veterans to today’s billion-dollar audiobook industry.
The Untold Story of the Talking Book focuses on the social impact of audiobooks, not just the technological history, in telling a story of surprising and impassioned conflicts: from controversies over which books the Library of Congress selected to become talking books – yes to Kipling, no to Flaubert – to debates about what defines a reader. Delving into the vexed relationship between spoken and printed texts, Rubery argues that storytelling can be just as engaging with the ears as with the eyes and that audiobooks deserve to be taken seriously. They are not mere derivatives of printed books but their own form of entertainment.
We have come a long way from the era of sound recorded on wax cylinders, when people imagined one day hearing entire novels on mini phonographs tucked inside their hats. Rubery tells the untold story of this incredible evolution and, in doing so, breaks from convention by treating audiobooks as a distinctively modern art form that has profoundly influenced the way we read.
A Note about Audio
Many of my readers access reading material through audio book libraries, whether through their state or federal library for the blind, through their local public library, or through online resources featuring books on CD or digital downloads for rent or purchase. The narrator of Rubery’s book, Jim Dennison, reads the book straight through, with neither dramatic flare nor flat intonation. It was mildly disconcerting listening to such a narrator reading a passage about “How to Read a Talking Book.” But Dennison is a good narrator choice for this book, letting the text stand on its own… and stand, it does.
Blindness is Prominent
Unlike many authors that include a few token quotes from blind people, Rubery shies away from making them out to be incompetent or demanding or whiny. He describes blind people as having particular needs (inclusion, literacy) and vastly different opinions of what that would look like. Some were portrayed as grateful for any literature at all, while others are more particular about the types of books available. Some wanted to read about those who went through the journey of blindness, while others preferred escapism. This provides a look into blind people as individuals, with different personalities, preferences and expectations. He also describes the challenges of learning braille later in life, or transporting braille volumes for those who read braille, or the limited number of books made available. In addition, he provides compelling scientific evidence (written in an accessible style) that reading with the fingers or the ears uses the same brain activity as reading with the eyes, putting the visually impaired only at a disadvantage to their sighted friends or family due to the lack of access to reading material.
Not a Dry (Audio) Book
Rubery not only discusses the history of talking books – from their inception to the present – but does so logically and with nuance. From the early days where the hope for talking books was surpassed by the technology available at the time to the present day where almost everyone has some form of talking book somewhere (on their phone, in their car), he takes us on a wild ride. I found myself most interested in the inception of talking book libraries in the 1930s. How were books chosen? Was there censorship involved? Were the blind needing protection from unpleasant topics? Did narration matter? With a finite supply of funds, what would appeal to the widest variety of people? When audio books became more popular, what made some publishers more successful than others? From “public” playing of talking books in one’s living room (a BIG no no!) to the idea that any form of “hearing” books being viewed by society as “lazy”, I found myself wrestling with some of those questions, even as I read an audio book while making dinner or going for a run.
And talking books are constantly changing, even today. Now, books on CD are still available for purchase by consumers and libraries, even as digital repositories are gaining popularity. Some audio books for adults have included (as they did for children all those years ago) sound effects and music to enhance the experience. Rubery provides a compelling case that there is room in the marketplace for audio books as they are, and as they will become in the years ahead.
A seasoned audio book consumer, I learned a lot from this book. From the little things (like why some libraries for the blind include warnings about violence or strong language in their book descriptions) to the big things (wondering how the printed word became so “sacred” after cultures used oral storytelling for centuries), there is much to take away from this book. Whether you read it with your eyes or your ears, it provides much food for thought and interesting discussion.