#FridayReads The Untold Story of the Talking Book

Whenever I type that title, I keep wanting to put “audiobook” instead. This is because I find the term “Talking book” strange. Makes it sound as if the printed pages are actually speaking, which ok I guess in a way they are.

I am reading a nonfiction piece, a result of Matthew Rubery’s research project called The Untold Story of the Talking Book. And as one who has grown up immersed in this media, I love learning about the ins and outs of how it truly came to be.

RELATED: Listen to an interview with the author couched in that Blind Bargains Podcast episode.

I have only just begun reading, but I already know it’s course. He notes Edison’s invention of the phonograph and the savvy advertising that slowly convinced people of its utility, how audiobooks really came to life as a way to service newly blinded soldiers after World War I?, their slow but continuous growth with all of its attendant controversies, and concerns over Audible, the granddaddy of audiobook companies, taking everything over. In between, there lies the content of what could be a college-level course. I am intrigued to continue grasping the main way that reading, especially initially and even counting into the smartphone era, has become accessible to me.

The funny thing I suppose is the way I am in fact consuming this book. I read the introduction via a digital audio file downloaded from BARD, the Braille and Audio Reading Download service provided by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. I eventually decided though that I was gaining nothing from having it narrated, and switched to a Braille copy obtained through Bookshare and consumed on the phone with my refreshable 40-cell display. (As an aside, I have noticed a spiking interest in my silly Braille post made in late 2015, so I hope you all are having fun with that!)

I have for a long time now enjoyed taking in books through multiple modalities. Each suits me at its time. Audio is great for winding down at bedtime, and when I was at the workshop, snatching a few minutes of a thriller or great memoir to fortify me during the breaks as I prepared to enter another segment of the day. Braille works best when I’m outside and wish to listen to and absorb my environment as I read, or if on a long road trip as it can make time speed by. I know too that they stimulate the brain in slightly different, but equally interesting, ways. So I would definitely say that each has its place.

Given Rubery’s primary focus on audio and the resultant transformations it has wrought though, I want to mostly stick with that vein. Let’s talk about narrators. (Readers? Voice actors? There is even disagreement about what to call them). First, I am in agreement that one who does not do this well can detract from the story. But then “doing it well” is probably subjective. As Rubery states, I have some favorites who will cause me to grab a book even if I have no idea what it is about. And there are others whom I will avoid at all costs, either finding it in Braille or locating another audio version. One of the major areas that is changing as audiobooks gain in popularity is how they are read. They are becoming a little less truer to the printed page, which coincidentally I noticed was even the case with this title as it has been rendered for BARD audiences.

The main way this plays out is in dramatic, or multicast, narration. I actually thoroughly enjoy this kind of performance for what it is, whether one can call it “real reading” or not. I will often take in these books from Audible or its competitor if it looks like something I can get into.

So as you can see with this title, there is more to an audiobook than meets the eye. (Ear? Ah, that’s too easy.) It is a fascinating topic, and one that has been addressed to a surprisingly small degree. I would recommend it to all of the audiophiles out there who, like me, look forward to putting head on pillow, setting the sleep timer, and being whisked off to a new world. After all, this thing we love started somewhere.