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Matthew Rubery. The Untold Story of the Talking Book

Matthew Rubery. The Untold Story of the Talking Book. Cambridge, MA; London, England: Harvard University Press, 2016. 369p., 39 halftones. ISBN 9780674545441. US $29.95 (hardcover).

Matthew Rubery’s latest monograph, The Untold Story of the Talking Book, is an item of both an exceptionally original thesis and impressively wide-ranging archival and scholarly research. One need not look far to see that in a short time it has achieved an impressive and positive reception from numerous high-ranking journals that have praised its wide scope of merits (here). Its positive reception is no doubt in part a response to Rubery’s fantastic discovery of a unique copy of the first full-length audiobook in Canada in November 2016 (here). He discovered a set of four LPs (Long-Playing Records) with the entire text of Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novella, Typhoon, made by the National Institute for the Blind—now, by charter, the Royal National Institute of the Blind—in 1935. So clearly, by now, most of us know that the book is a hot purchase that is being read—or listened to—by lots of people, although possibly not why it is a necessary read for all book historians, a matter that I hope this review helps to clear up.

“The Author Making Cylinders of his Own Works,” from “The End of Books,” by Octave Uzanne, illustrations by Albert Robida, Scribner’s Magazine 16 (1894), 226. Accessed 11 March 2017, https://archive.org/details/TheEndOfBooks.

There is a whole lot of new, deeply thought-out book history content in Rubery’s lengthy 369-page volume, starting with the cheekily titled “Introduction,” “What Is the History of Audiobooks?,” an intentional nod toward Robert Darnton’s seminal essay “What is the History of Books?” (1982) with its oft-invoked diagram of “The Communications Circuit.” In his “Introduction,” Rubery relates the study of “audio books,” a term that he usefully defines on page 2, to the philosophical writings of the big name authorities of our field: he brings attention to the split between print and sound, as formulated by Marshall McLuhan, ushering in a new state of consciousness in the 1954 Counterblast (6); he observes that Jerome McGann’s “bibliographical codes” are in some respects “discarded” for audiobooks, because much of the paratextual tangibles from regular books ultimately disappear—the binding, the ink, the paper, and so on (11); he invokes Walter J. Ong’s idea of a “secondary orality” in conceptualizing the audiobook as a convergence of media, rather than a remediation and replacement of old media (7); and he draws on Roger Chartier to validate “listening” to audiobooks as a new and emerging method of reading—Chartier’s advice from The Order of Books (published in French, 1992; English trans. 1994, by Lydia G. Cochrane) that “[a] history of reading must not limit itself to the genealogy of our contemporary manner of reading, in silence and using only our eyes” (16). Indeed, Rubery’s monograph is worth obtaining from your local library or purchasing if only for this new, scintillating take on a type of book that the majority of the core studies of our field—with exception to Sven Birkerts’s Gutenberg Elegies (1994)—unfortunately ignore or exclude.

Rubery, however, has even more to offer, to those with the patience to read further into the book—or the busy professional fortunate enough to lay his or her hands upon a copy of the spoken word version (my own local library has purchased five copies, which currently have a wait-list of 20 library patrons). Only a modest portion of this new monograph has appeared before in print, and of those two of the nine chapters, the one in a periodical only tangentially consulted by book historians (here, here). Consisting of three parts with nine chapters—Part I comprised of a single chapter, Part II, five, and Part III, three—encased by an “Introduction” and “Afterword,” Rubery’s Untold Story is essentially a narrative of expanding delivery, with Part I covering experimental phonographic books stuck in the laboratory (29-55), Part II, the “Talking Books” prepared for people with vision impairments (59-181), and Part III, covering the realm of commercially oriented audiobooks, from LPs to tapes and from tapes to digital downloads (185-269). There is not a single part of these stories that does not deserve to be told, and Rubery excels at describing each feature of these histories in a way that is very readable and entertaining. All the while, he does justice to topics of great seriousness with an earnest devotion to the sweet and subtle nuances of old fashioned social historian research methodologies.

In particular, I want to draw attention to Rubery’s brilliant examination of the beginnings of a commercial market for the spoken word recordings that we now know as “audiobooks,” first in the 1950s, with Caedmon Records’s inaugural album of Dylan Thomas’s reciting “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” (185-216), and then, in the 1970s, with busy executive Duvall Hecht’s mid-life career-change from overworked, bored commuter to founder and manager of Books on Tape—an early rental library for audiobooks so ubiquitous in the success of the audiobook genre that up to the 1990s retailers continued to shelve together all audio titles under the signature of that brand (217-44). Back to Caedmon, Rubery explores with sensitivity the technological innovations of the long-playing vinyl record that went on the market in 1948 and the use of magnetic tape recording in 1949, which rendered practicable the manufacture of recordings of our early poets. He tells of the inspirational entrepreneurship of two young ladies, Barbara Holdridge and Marianne Mantell, the co-founders of Caedmon, who had the vision to track down many of the century’s most influential writers, including W. H. Auden, e. e. cummings, T. S. Eliot, William Faulkner, and more than a dozen others, to get them to speak portions of their writings for commercial distribution, thus capturing for all time an important “third dimension” of “the printed page,” the original cadence and inflection of these major authors’ voices, for generations that followed (189). This visionary re-vision of the spoken word recording as something special and exclusive—a break from the stigmatic association of audio literature with embossed types and braille as an unfortunate but necessary substitute for print, to help the disabled to normalise and be self-sufficient—would, as Rubery shows, create an operative framework for the commercial benchmarks of success that are realizable today.

In his chapter on “Tapeworms” (Books on Tape) and “Audio Revolution” (audible and digital downloads), Rubery explains, as seamlessly, the state of the audiobook market as we know it today, where “audiobooks are the fastest-growing format in the book business” (Wall Street Journal, 21 July 2016; see here). Notably, Rubery shows how from the humble roots of a rental agency—a business model that took shape from the “subscription libraries of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when purchasing books was too expensive for most people” (220)—Books on Tape, a “rental library in sound” (220), carved out a niche for itself among the ambitious business professional, with supplemental income to devote to filling out the literary gaps from a university education for enhanced career prospects (221). In small steps, but with powerful examples from BOT’s recently displaced archive (337n2), Rubery demonstrates the core business principles that took it from 1 title in 1975 to 2,500 titles in 1988 (233), and then to a backlist of approximately 5,000 titles when it was acquired by Random House in 2001 (243). These principles include the unabridged format, a staff reader as a narrator, an unenhanced background (no sound effects, music, multiple voices), a plain wrapper, and mail-order rental (237). BOT’s refusal to compromise by trimming the books led to audiobooks being generally perceived as out of the realm of “Kentucky Fried literature” (24) and the “Rodney Dangerfield of literature” (25), as Caedmon combated the lingering shame that many detractors linked to the genre for its roots in helping persons of disability.

Personally, I was pleased to see in this final section, and the concluding “Afterword,” Rubery’s fascinating description of recent shifts in the genre, and his wise predictions of where its future will take us. Early in the book, Rubery cast a quick glance at several staples of Victorian utopian fiction that privilege audiobooks as a logical replacement of print literature—rather than painting a picture of a future of mixed and integrated media (cum McLuhan), they endorse remediation (44-55). Rubery provides close readings of Edward Bellamy’s “With the Eyes Shut” (1898) as well as Octave Uzanne’s and Albert Robida’s “The End of Books” (1894). In looking at the future of education and entertainment audio from the closer perspective of today, Rubery enlightens us with examples where audio in some ways supersedes and can displace print. Celebrity narrative emerges as a central theme throughout the book, with the German novelist and Nobel Laureate Thomas Mann, for example, writing a special introduction for his unsighted readers in Books for the Blind (107), and other authors doing the same (105). In his final chapter, Rubery notes many thought-provoking examples of the Silksoundbooks’s motto “We focus on the face, not the book” (252), with instances of the appeal of celebrity readers (presidential memoirs, for example). For entertainment value, who wouldn’t want to hear Toni Morrison read her Song of Solomon (1977; 1985 and 2009 narrator) in its entirety or 44th President of the United States of America Barack Obama read his Dreams from My Father (1995; 2005 narrator)? “Aural Equivalents” (259-65) sees Rubery give a close reading of Naxos Audio’s adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s radical, format-challenging print novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759–1767). Whereas the noise of rustling pages at one point signifies Sterne’s playful omission of “an entire ten-page chapter” to vex or excite his reader (260), a sound effect of a chiming church bell at another serves as a surrogate for the original’s “solid black page to mourn Parson Yorick’s death” (261). Be it an audiobook on classical music, with orchestral excerpts included (91), or a non-fictional, scientific text on birdsong with sound-clips for the amateur ornithologist (91), audiobooks can, in some ways, challenge if not unseat print as reigning champion.

Rubery’s Untold Story is for now the definitive history of audiobooks. It asks essential questions relevant to all aspects of book history, such as how do we distinguish between “reading” and “being read to” (19), can the visually impaired “read” (13-16), how has reading changed over the years from a communal activity to a solitary activity (141), and how shall our perceptions of reading change in the next one-hundred years (271-76)? It gives adequate working definitions of “audiobook” vs. “talking book” (2-3), “reader” vs. “narrator” (7), and “speaker” vs. “performer” (7), and it surveys the early technologies that pioneered our way toward the iPhone and digital downloads (wax cylinders [21], shellac records [65], the optophone [134], the typophone [134], the photoelectrograph [135], and the Audible Player [247-52]).

Read this book in print, or read this book in its audio format.

Joshua McEvilla
Independent Scholar

Postscript

Rubery’s prediction of a binary future for the advancement of audio literature, with real human voices contrasted with synthetic, hyperreal “uncanny valley” machine voices, I at first thought to be an ambitious stretch, that is before I found this recording (here). I initially felt that Rubery might have said more about the public domain initiatives of Librivox.org, a charity that has, since 2005, built up a vast catalogue of complete books of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, through the dedicated undertakings of a generous community of volunteer readers. Upon closer examination, however, I realized that the omission was fully justified, as Rubery himself edited a collection with a meticulous essay covering almost all aspects of the topic (Michael Hancher, “Learning from LibriVox,” in Audiobooks, Literature, and Sound Studies, ed. Matthew Rubery [New York; London: Routledge, 2011], 199-215). Although some of the anecdotes from the visually impaired early users of audiobooks do render those sections long (“A Talking Book in Every Corner of Dark-Land,” 59-85; “From Shell Shock to Shellac,” 109-28), I do think that they merit perusal and add regional and historical flavour, as well as heartening nostalgia, where included (for example, ex-soldier F. G. Braithwaite’s testimonial to the benefactors of the Talking Book Library, on page 147).

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