An overview of how the spoken word has been captured on records, tapes, cassettes, and digital devices.
For Rubery (English/Queen Mary Univ.; The Novelty of Newspapers: Victorian Fiction After the Invention of the News, 2009, etc.), the audiobook poses two overarching questions: “What difference does it make whether we read a book or listen to it?” Does the printed book have “privileged standing” over a recording? Although it would seem that audiobooks would be an uncontroversial boon to people with vision impairment or busy lives, throughout its 150-year history, recorded books have generated heated debate: some people claim that listening is not as intellectually challenging as reading print; others disagree. Audiobooks attract nonreaders and those who love to read. “Audiobooks fascinate me,” the author writes, “precisely because they elicit such intense feelings among readers and appeal to groups that seem to be polar opposites when it comes to taste.” Although Rubery carefully chronicles the technology, marketing, and public response to recorded books, his fascination rarely infuses his narrative with excitement. The technology that began in 1877 when Thomas Edison recorded his recitation of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” took off in the 1930s, in America and Britain, with an effort to supply books for blind readers, including World War I soldiers. Those readers, grateful as they were, disagreed about whether books should be narrated dramatically or in a straightforward manner. The American Foundation for the Blind claimed that the presentation influenced the acceptance of the talking book “as a legitimate alternative to print.” Controversy also erupted about what books were appropriate for recording and how to deal with pornography or offensive language. Some authors—e.g., Willa Cather and Rudyard Kipling—refused permission for their books to be recorded, objecting that any narrator would impose an interpretation that should be left up to readers. Rubery’s account of the founding of Caedmon, a company devoted to recording famous authors reading their works, is one of the livelier chapters.
A well-informed but tepid history.