2016, Harvard University Press, 369 pages
Histories of the book often move straight from the codex to the digital screen. Left out of that familiar account are 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.
Matthew Rubery is Reader in English Literature in the School of English and Drama at Queen Mary University of London.
The Untold Story of the Talking Book
Yes, Rubery’s book is available in audiobook format on Audible! Imagine the scandal if the book on audiobooks wasn’t available in audiobook format.
I came across this book at one of the smaller regional libraries. It was a pleasant surprise to see them stock such a specialized title. Last month I signed up with Findaway Voices to make my book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected into an audiobook and I wanted to learn more about this burgeoning format. Findaway hooked me up with actor Greg Patmore, who’s been on Coronation Street and Hatfields and McCoys. This is such an exciting process, as audiobooks, while starting off from a small base, have, in the last few years, had the most explosive sales growth versus print and eBooks. Several work colleagues reaffirmed the publisher stats when they mentioned that their wives were audiobook fans.
The Greater Victoria Public Library has about a million print titles in circulation. It has one book on audiobooks and it just happened to be at the Juan de Fuca branch where I happened to be. It was surprising that they only had one book–Rubery’s book–on audiobooks, but I can see why now: there’s not too many books out there on the history of audiobooks. As Rubery points out, audiobooks are the Rodney Dangerfield of the publishing industry: they don’t get any respect.
The history of the audiobook has been a series of fits and starts. When Edison introduced the first phonograph in 1877, he spoke of the day when audiobooks would take over. The technology, however, for the phonograph to capture books, wouldn’t arrive for decades: books were simply too long for the first wax cylinders.
The first consumers for audiobooks were blind veterans from the First World War. The first audiobook controversy took place between supporters of braille and audiobook enthusiasts. Highbrow readers worried that the audiobook would detract from the drive to teach braille. Also, a secondary controversy arose as Library of Congress committees decided which books would be recorded as audiobooks. As you could expect, the committees’ decisions would often conflict with public taste. Charges of censorship or lewdness were flung over dividing line of public taste and tolerance.
As audiobooks gained a following outside the blind community, further controversies arose: should listening to an audiobook be considered equivalent to reading? Should the audiobook narrator perform the narration, or read the book in a neutral, monotone voice? Performing a dramatic reading, in some circles, was frowned upon: the speaker should let the words speak for themselves, some said. A neutral tone was closer to the act of reading, would let listeners use their imagination to fill in the action. But some thought: why not hire a famous actor to perform and add drama to the narration?
For my own book, I went with the most famous person I could find to bring the book to life. I wanted a performance. I made the decision prior to reading Rubery’s book. I now understand why some of the auditions I heard on Findaway Voices sounded so dry: many people who listen to audiobooks enjoy a dry and neutral presentation. There’s even a small group of listeners that like listening to audiobooks spoken by computer voices. That way the reading gets out of the way of their interpretation. But I find that unreasonable. Let’s say I go to see a play at the theatre. Would I want to see a dry and less dramatic performance so that I could use my imagination to flesh out the playwright’s genius? No way! I want to see how the actors and director interpret the play. And I thought the same with my book: the audience is paying for a performance, give them one!
After the Library of Congress talking books of the 1930s, the next big event was the commercialization of audiobooks in the 1950s. Caedmon Records, founded by Barbara Holdridge and Marianne Mantell, took the audiobook to the next level. Instead of recording what highbrow committees wanted, they recorded what listeners wanted to hear. Have you ever wanted to hear Camus, T.S. Eliot, Joyce, Mann, Plath, Dylan Thomas, or Yeats perform their own works? Recordings were available through Caedmon. Caedmon recordings were also dramatic, as opposed to the neutral Library of Congress recordings. And the most brilliant marketing play of Caedmon was that they reminded listeners that literature was originally performed by bards before there were books. Bards like Homer or Hesiod. There was a long oral tradition before books came along. In this way, audiobooks were literature. And even more real literature than books, which had been around for a shorter period of time.
After Caedmon, Rubery talks about the advances in audiobooks from the cassette tape in the 80s to the CD in the 90s to Amazon and downloadable MP3 audiobook today. This reminds me. The historian Francis Fukuyama had argued that history ends with the arrival of democratic and capitalist societies. Perhaps he was wrong? Instead, perhaps history ends with Amazon? The point of the democratic capitalist societies was to produce this thing called Amazon, the shopping centre of the world where all things are bought, sold, and now produced (Amazon bought Audible, which is an audiobook publisher)? That is, of course, a joke. But in all jokes, there is a grain of truth.
Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.