What do audiobooks say?

February 8, 2010

My son and I have  long commute together, so it seemed a natural evolution to move from reading to him at night to listening to books together in the morning.  I’ve learned a lot about the experience of audiobooks this way, for example:

  • the tendency of my visually-inclined memory to link snippets of dialogue or important plot twists with places I’m actually physically located (Lyra entered the underworld as I turned from Atwater onto Lapeer Rd, for example)
  • the difficulty of existing in two world at once, quite different from the immersive pleasures of print (give the audiobook too much attention and I miss my exit; concentrate too much on the traffic and I miss a paragraph)
  • the importance of a good professional reader (sadly, A Wrinkle in Time was utterly ruined by the non-mellifluous Madeline L’Engle reading it herself; I can’t abide the free, volunteer-based LibriVox for similar reasons, though I love the concept; conversely, the brilliant Golden Compass series  featured a stupendous full cast, including the sonorous Pullman himself as narrator)
  • how cheesy sound effects or intrusive music can ruin an otherwise pleasant experience
  • that some books just require print (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a well-produced audiobook, but I didn’t realize how typographically innovative it was until I bought the paper book later–which meant I missed one of the central points of the novel.  The New York Times commented on this, in fact.)

As my son’s taste evolves away from children’s literature and our interests diverge, we listen to fewer of these in our travels together.  I’ve let my subscription to Audible.com lapse, and substitute podcasts instead.  But as an historian of the book, I’m still intrigued by the history and cultural ramification of these sound texts.  Because they started to develop back in the days of (gasp!) cassette tapes (or were they ever on vinyl?), I think they’ve been overlooked by sexier developments in reading technologies. (Talking Kindles and computers reading for the blind may bring them back in.)

As my measly list makes clear, though, there is much to think about in terms of how the recorded book positions readers, reshapes the text, and makes reading through the ear a collaborative experience.   A new book-absorption process emerges, one that is perhaps neurologically and is certainly culturally distinct from print reading.  This process, though technologically-dependent and certainly 20th-century in origin, should help us better grapple with (even if by contrast) the group reading experiences of earlier times, whether this was the family patriarch in the parlor reading from the Bible, a group of women awaiting Pamela’s fate, or rowdy gentlemen in a Coffee House arguing over The Spectator.

I have not begun to approach this in a sustained, scholarly way yet, though it is certainly if perhaps tangentially  related to my interest in the rise of the disembodied reading eye in the late eighteenth century.  Today on SHARP-L, though, a bibliography is being gathered, which I consolidate here for your own reading (though not listening) pleasure:

* Philips, Deborah. (2007) ‘Talking Books: The Encounter of Literature and Technology in the Audio Book.’ Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 13.3: 293-306.

* Egbert, Marie-Luise. (2007) ‘ “A Good Book Speaks for Itself”: Audiobooks and Reception Aesthetics.’ Intermedialities. Eds Werner Huber, Evelyne Keitel and Gunter Süss. Trier, Germany: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier.

* Shokoff, James. (2001) ‘What is an Audiobook?’ Journal of Popular Culture 34.4: 171-81.

* Matthew Rubery. (2008) “Play It Again, Sam Weller: New Digital Audiobooks and Old Ways of Reading.” Journal of Victorian Culture 13.1 : 58-79.


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