As the first full history of recorded literature from Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph to today’s surging audiobook market, Matthew Rubery’s The Untold Story of the Talking Book documents a vibrant tradition of audiobooks extending back to the late 19th century, as well as the devices, formats, companies, and government entities that ushered them along. In doing so, the book addresses a number of longstanding questions: What difference does it make whether we read a book with our eyes or ears? Is listening to books really “reading,” or is it something else? What accounts for the curious sense of shame people sometimes feel for listening to books instead of reading them in print?
In the excerpt below, Rubery details early efforts by the American Foundation for the Blind, the Library of Congress, and others to define the purpose and parameters of the talking book. The embedded audio player presents the corresponding section of the audiobook edition of The Untold Story of the Talking Book, read by Jim Denison and available from Blackstone Audio.
“What Is a Good Talking Book?” was the question posed in 1938 by Talking Book Topics, the AFB’s quarterly magazine. Once the talking book library had been established, its studios began to take an interest in quality as well as quantity. William Barbour, a former Broadway actor working for the AFB, singled out three characteristics: clarity, editorial accuracy, and artistic perfection. Above all, a good talking book faithfully reproduced the original book. “We demand that our readers preserve complete fidelity to the text which they are reading,” wrote Barbour. “We want those who listen to our books to feel that they are hearing exactly what the author wrote.” Exactly: the talking book was treated like the printed book in another medium.
For Barbour and many others, ink-print, talking, and embossed books differed only in conveying information via the eyes, ears, or fingers. The AFB’s policy of bibliographic equivalence assured audiences that they were reading the same books as every one else. This policy also sought to uphold the talking book’s legitimacy by aligning it with a familiar format rather than presenting it as something completely new. Listening to books might offer a pleasure all its own, but, if so, that pleasure was a secondary consideration. The goal was to allow blind people to participate in the same activities enjoyed by other people.
Talking books preserved the printed book’s features or at least a sense of “bookishness.” “Page” was often used instead of “side” to describe records, for example. The talking book was not only a spoken version of the book but also a bookish version of speech. The bibliographic emphasis ensured that talking books would be evaluated in terms of printed ones. Such fidelity rendered the experience of listening to a book as much as possible like that of reading one in print. The AFB embraced fidelity to the point that, in a few cases, narrators were asked to reproduce obvious errors (sometimes even spelling mistakes) in order to ensure that blind readers received the exact same treatment as other readers.
Talking books reproduced every word of the original book. The Library of Congress’s “Specifications for Talking Book Records” insisted that the wording be identical: “The Talking Book edition of any work should conform just as closely as possible to the text of the printed edition.” Scripts likely to be known by heart—the Bible, historical documents, favorite poems—had to be word perfect. Accuracy was stressed to ensure that talking books were treated as equivalent to ink-print ones. For instance, they recited verbatim the textual apparatus (front matter, acknowledgments, and so forth) skimmed or skipped altogether by the typical reader. The narrator of Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy spent thirteen hours on the fifty-six-page index alone. Chapter headings, epigraphs, and other paratextual features likewise had to be read aloud; manuals instructed narrators to read footnotes at once since records had no page breaks. Educational recordings even cited page numbers in order to convey the source book’s layout.