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  • The Untold Story of the Talking Book by Matthew Rubery
  • Jaipreet Virdi (bio)
The Untold Story of the Talking Book By Matthew Rubery. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016. Pp. 369.

Having never read an audiobook, I accessed the Audible version of Matthew Rubery's The Untold Story of the Talking Book for this review. I thought this might give me a more authentic experience of reading and listening, though fully aware of the challenges my deafness would pose. I ended up reading the Introduction in a multimodal approach, playing the audiobook and following the written text, oftentimes getting frustrated because the different speeds between the two became unaligned—I tend to read faster with my eyes, and I suppose, my mind, than my ears can listen. The aurality of reading is not for me, but I can certainly understand its appeal for both blind, low-vision, and sighted people: the pace and smoothness of the narrator's voice, combined with the freedom to move and read, are why audiobooks have dominated publishing income since 2010.

The philosophical question, is "a talking book still a book"—and if so, how do we read it—anchors Rubery's fascinating cultural and sociological study of the emergence of talking books from wax cylinders to Audible (p. 59). Contrary to the belief that recorded books first began as a format for blind readers in the 1930s before extending to a broader readership by the 1950s, Rubery argues that this history is much older. Tracing the history of recorded sound to Thomas Edison reciting "Mary Had a Little Lamb" in 1877, Rubery divides the co-development between print and talking books into three major phrases, each corresponding to a separate book section: part I discusses wax cylinders and how the possibility of sound recording inspired questions about the printed book's capabilities and constraints; part II explores American and British developments with talking books for blind veterans and civilians after the First World War; and part III shifts to the commercial market led by Caedmon Records in the 1950s and Duvall Hechett in the 1970s that served as precursor to today's audiobooks.

Talking books were meant to be democratizing. Edison envisioned people unable to access the poems of Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning—including the illiterate, the working class, and the blind—could benefit from recorded books and participate in literary culture. The technological limitations of recording on wax cylinders meant that talking books would not achieve any significant consumer base until blind soldiers from the Great War proved unable, or unwilling, to read braille. Philanthropic initiatives led by the American Foundation of the Blind and the National Institute of the Blind in Britain expanded the reach of talking books, [End Page 243] though not without controversy. As Rubery outlines, though braille books cost up to twenty times their ink-print equivalents, and only a small percentage of blind people could read braille, talking books were perceived as low-brow literacy for "chair warmers" too lazy to learn raised type (p. 71). Even Helen Keller, the American author and disability rights activist, initially rejected recorded books, fearing they would supersede philanthropic endeavors to support braille, but she changed her stance once the Library of Congress convinced its blind patrons that learning braille was an "intellectual accomplishment."

Letters to the American Foundation of the Blind reveal how readers relished the "glorious independence" talking books provided and perceived them as books that could engage "trained readers" without any obligation or difficulty. The Library of Congress book selection process and the preferences to maintain "bookishness," however, speak to a larger cultural ideology of citizenship. The debates about which books to select for recording and the policy of "Straight Reading" with no theatrical style—that Caedmon Records would later reverse—are what Rubery calls the "politics of narration" (p. 99). Narrator voices were essential to the success of a talking book, but also received increased scrutiny from campaigners for social equality; audiences wanted talking books to reflect their authors' voices, not merely recorded by white men. The privileges of narrative voice and the later discussion about book censorship are the most fascinating aspects of Rubery...


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pp. 243-244
Launched on MUSE
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