- The Untold Story of the Talking Book by Matthew Rubery
Audio Book, History, Disability, Listening
The book, understood as an object, medium, or technology, has received a lot of scholarly attention. Histories of books have produced fascinating tales of forbidden books, illuminated books, and sacred books. The impact of the printing press continues to be debated. Some years ago, critics were convinced [End Page 107] that the Internet would shorten our attention spans and they announced the death of the book. Instead, we have seen the creation of a new format for books, the e-book, as well as an explosion of book sales facilitated by Internet companies like Amazon. The audiobook is part of this new media landscape, taking its place among podcasts and music in our listening lives. But the audiobook itself is not a new phenomenon, and this new book traces its long and intriguing history. It is a welcome addition to a field that has neglected the history of books in audio format.
While disability played a major role in the development of the talking book, Rubery makes it clear that the first talking books were not necessarily intended for blind readers. When Thomas Edison promoted his new phonograph as a medium for recording books, he imagined their appeal to the illiterate and manual or industrial laborers as well as the blind. Talking books might appeal to families with limited access to electricity, who spent evenings in the dark, or to people who aspired to greater cultural capital through familiarity with the work of Charles Dickens or Adam Smith.
Eventually, however, recording books for blind readers dominated the production of talking books. In the 1930s, both the American Foundation for the Blind and the Library of Congress established lending systems for the circulation of talking books. Rubery notes the debates among public officials, blind readers, and advocacy groups about what was to be recorded or distributed, and the relative merits of braille or recorded books. In time, the consensus that emerged affirmed the importance and utility of recorded books, and resources continued to be devoted to recording new titles. Another impetus for the recording of books came after the first World War in Britain, when the needs of soldiers blinded or wounded in combat became a matter of public discussion. Growing in the inter-war period, the production of recorded books in Britain rivaled that of the United States. Rubery’s account offers readers an engaging history of recorded books in English in the northern hemisphere. While it does not claim to be a global history of the talking book, it fails to acknowledge the rather limited scope and so risks universalizing these two specific cases. One wonders whether readers of English in India or Jamaica had access to recorded books, or whether books were being recorded in China, Egypt, or France. Clearly this is beyond the reach of this admirably researched book. But a more specific placing of these cases within a global context would have been welcome.
In the era before recording books became a commercial enterprise, limited resources meant that the selection of both books and readers was a fraught and political process. Rubery details some of the debates over which books were chosen and which readers were most sought after. This is in fact an account of the making of an aural canon that privileged whiteness, Christianity (the Bible was one of the first, and most popular recorded books), and nationalism. Among the reasons why books were deemed unrecordable are that they contained difficult dialects, too many foreign accents, or were simply too political. It is easy to see how, by attrition, the gatekeepers of unsuitability reinforced the already Eurocentric and male-dominated canon. In some ways, this resonates with recurring debates about public goods and the public sphere. If public resources are devoted to the distribution of texts and other materials, the matter of monitoring [End Page 108] or controlling the content becomes politicized and can result in the reproduction of power structures in ways that may be hidden to the public...