Friday, March 17, 2017

"Pornography for the blind" — the audio book adventure


     This column is, in a way, a result of my trip down to Wayne County in early January. I wanted an audio book to pass the time on the long drive downstate, and grabbed George Packer's "The Unwinding." But the rental car didn't have a CD player—outdated technology—so the box sat mute on the passenger seat. I began listening to it when I got back, driving around town. It got so I looked forward to any errand, the longer the better. But I just don't drive that much, and at disc 10 I crossed the Rubicon, copied the remaining CDs onto my iPod, and listened to them while walking the dog, folding laundry or cleaning the kitchen. Something about audio books migrating from the car, where they had always belonged, to the rest of life, seemed to magnify their importance. It got me thinking whether I was processing the book in the same way, listening to it, as I would had I read it. Which put me in the right frame of mind to be interested in the book below. 

     Before Scientific American even published Thomas Edison's letter announcing his plans to 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 Elliot'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 "pornography for the blind?"
     We are in the golden age of audio books, the fastest-growing sector of publishing. About 125 new audio books are released each day.

       One of those new 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....

     To continue reading, click here.

13 comments:

  1. Is that a David Malki illustration?

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  2. You've legitimized talking books for me -- I guess I was sort of a snob heretofore, considering them of lesser quality than printed books.

    John

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  3. "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." That is why I no longer watch Rachel Maddow.

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  4. They'll never replace actual reading for me (for one thing, reading is much faster), but audio books can be a great experience. I'll never forget the first one I heard, The Memory of Running, by Ron McLarty. Only after reading/hearing it did I discovery that the author was also the narrator of many other books written by others. The narrator can make a huge difference. I couldn't care less whether or not it's a celebrity. But a gifted reader somehow makes a clear distinction between characters without extreme alterations to his or her voice. I used to record textbooks for the blind and dyslexic as a volunteer, but I did not have that gift.

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    1. Wad that top photo of microphones from a previous column/post?

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    2. Yes. A visit to Shure microphone. It seemed apt.

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  5. Blind listeners requested photographs? Is that a joke - on either your part or the author's? Either way, I'm adding this book to my list. Thanks.

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    1. No, of courser not. It's a poignant detail. Only about 15 percent of blind people are totally blind. The rest can perceive some degree of light. Hence a photo could have value.

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    2. Got it - I don't think I would use the word "blind" to describe a person that had some sight, but maybe I need to update my terminology.

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    3. It's a common confusion, which is why the Lighthouse for the Blind became the Lighthouse for People who are Blind or Visually Impaired, or words to that effect, and lately, just The Lighthouse. But blind people themselves use it, and for good reason. If your sight went all blurry tomorrow, you'd think, "I'm going blind" not "I still have a quarter of my sight left."

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  6. Books are books. All good no matter how consumed, but some works are well adapted to the audio treatment. I particularly enjoyed The Iliad, well read by Dan Stevens, a surprisingly literate actor. Not surprising as it sprang from and oral tradition.

    Tom

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