Steinberg: ‘Pornography for the blind’ — the audiobook adventure

Audiobooks are the fastest-growing sector of publishing. About 125 new audiobooks are released each day. | AP file photo

Before Scientific American even published Thomas Edison’s letter announcing his plans to mechanically reproduce speech, the press was predicting the end of reading.

“Why should we learn to read when, if some skillful elocutionist merely repeats one of George Eliot’s novels aloud in the presence of a phonograph, we can subsequently listen to it without taking the slightest trouble?” the New York Times mused on Nov. 7, 1877, after hearing of the device.

A century later, “Cannonball Run” star Burt Reynolds recorded “Moby-Dick.”

In between, much debate over whether popular fiction should be made available to those with impaired vision or was that merely “pornography for the blind?”

We are in the golden age of audiobooks, the fastest-growing sector of publishing.  About 125 new audiobooks are released each day.

One of those titles, “The Untold Story of the Talking Book” by Matthew Rubery (Harvard University Press: $29.95), was also published in printed form, luckily, because that’s how I noticed the book’s cool dove gray cover and grabbed it.


This is one of those books that keeps flinging marvelous facts: “In the fourth century, St. Augustine memorably recalled his astonishment upon finding his teacher St. Ambrose reading silently to himself.” As it does, the book raises intriguing questions.

“What exactly is the relationship between spoken and printed texts?” Rubery asks. “How does the experience of listening to books compare to that of reading them? What influence does a book’s narrator have over its reception?”

For the first 50 years of recorded sound, audiobooks were a pipe dream because 78 rpm records were so brief — about three minutes a side. In the 1930s, long-playing records were developed specifically so books could be read to the blind. There was opposition, of course, from those worried that Braille would be supplanted. And newspaper columnists, as always, saw doom. “Novels under these conditions will cease to be novels,” one warned.

Blind listeners wept at the prospect of having access to books without having to prevail upon friends and loved ones to read to them. They sent letters of praise and requested photos of book narrators.

The most engaging part of “Untold Story,” for me, is the battle over what fraction of fiction should be recorded. After Boston’s Catholic Guild for the Blind complained that Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” was anti-Catholic (adultery) and should not be made available, Archibald MacLeish, then librarian of Congress, wrote to them, “Do you feel, that is, that the blind would welcome supervision of their reading of a kind not exercised in the case of sighted readers?”

There was a sense that objectionable passages were worse when spoken aloud, and blind audiences, which skewed toward elderly women, seemed to alternate between complaints that the selections were too dull or too racy.

Commercial recordings took off in the 1950s, after a pair of 22-year-old Hunter College graduates cornered Dylan Thomas after a reading in 1952. They dangled $500 at him and got him to agree to record some poems for their new label, Caedmon. But the poems Thomas brought with him only filled half a record. What to put on the B side? Thomas suggested a story he had just published, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” which went on to become one of the most popular spoken-word recordings of the 20th century.

“Untold Story” has flaws. The tell-them-what-you’re-going-to-tell-them, tell-them, tell-them-what-you-just-told-them cadence of academic writing can grate. The tidbit about St. Augustine is so delicious, Rubery, a London lit professor, serves it twice.

Or this: “The prominence of celebrities . . . has reinforced suspicions that audiobooks are a degraded form of commerce, not art.” Followed by, three paragraphs later, “The formula was simple: use a celebrity to signal to audiences that this is art.” Which is it?

But those hiccups can be forgiven because of the depth of research that obviously went into this book. If audiobooks are relatively new to your world, you might wonder where they came from and where they’re going. And for general fans of the intersection of culture and technology, “The Untold Story of the Talking Book” is a fascinating read.

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