The Untold Story of the Talking Book Is Quite a Story + 10 Insights I Never Considered Before.

“A rose is a rose is a rose, unless it’s an audio-rose.” — Unknown

Disclaimer: I am a reader of talking books.

There have been occasions over the years when someone will make a remark about listening to books is not really reading. Though I’d usually brush off these mildly abrasive dismissals as floof, it eventually became clear to me over time that listening to books is not considered real reading in some circles. So I found it quite delightful to discover a whole book devoted to this matter, which I’ve been listening to, I mean reading, this past week while driving around town.

The Untold Story of the Talking Book is Matthew Rubery’s contribution to the debate, recounting the history of audio books beginning with Thomas Edison’s recording of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on a tinfoil surface that could be played by phonograph in 1877. Today’s audiobook industry generates more than two billion dollars a year in the U.S. alone.

What’s fascinating in this history of the audiobook is how many different arguments arose along the way, and how many funny predictions about the future were generated by this “new” technology. For example, there were some who said audio books would replace printed books.

In retrospect we see a lot of similarity between that prediction and the kinds of statements made with other inventions. Radio would disappear eventually when eclipsed by television, supposedly. Television would disappear when the Internet was in full swing. Retail stores will disappear when eclipsed by Amazon.

The author was in part motivated to research the topic because he himself liked audio books but was self-conscious about saying so in light of the nay-sayers. Here are a few of the insights that stuck with me after reading this audio book.

  1. Edison expected the “talking book” to take of faster than it did. Ultimately it was half a century before the first full length novel had been recorded and reproduced.
  2. Though many blind people welcomed talking books, there were also braille readers who felt listening to audio books wasn’t really reading. Even though only 15% or so of blind people could read braille, there were some who quite opposed to the idea. Reading braille requires “deciphering code” which is more like deciphering letters on a page.
  3. After World War 1 there were many soldiers who had been left blind as a result of injuries. Audio books were an easier way to “read” than having to learn braille. This became the impetus for the acceptance of audio book recordings, in album form at that time. What was interesting, though, is that there were only a couple hundred soldier who had become blind. Even though there were tens of thousands of blind people already hungry for this new technology, it was sympathy for these newly blinded that pulled on the heartstrings of the masses to fund the mass recording of audio books.
  4. The next debate had to do with censorship. Some books should not be made available to the blind, like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. But then, who has the authority to decide what was decent and indecent?
  5. Which led to the debate regarding one of the advantages of braille. No one would know what book I was reading under the covers, whereas if I’m listening to audio books…
  6. The logistics of shipping and storing audio books could be a problem. One novel could be 80 discs. War and Peace and the Bible were closer to 200.

EdNote: The first time I read the Bible through I found the book of Leviticus to be quite tedious. Because I had a blind friend who had a full set of albums of the Bible on recorded discs, read by Alexander Scourby, I borrowed the Book of Leviticus to listen to. I tethered my mind to the reader and forced myself to plow through. It worked!

EdNote 2: This experience taught me how storytelling is much easier to get into than facts and data. Whether you’re in advertising, PR, sales or sipping a brew with your best friend’s girl, stories will be much more engaging than “just the facts, ma’am.”

7. The whole debate about whether a talking book is a book led to a reminder that throughout human history the village storyteller passed the tribe’s knowledge on orally. Gutenberg and the printing press was a relatively modern development. If the Pentateuch was indeed scribed by Moses, as is claimed for itself, then everything that he recorded must have been passed down to him orally.

8. Another fascinating thought was this one. The author points out that the introduction of every new technology calls into question the previous competing technologies and causes us to think more deeply about both. Folk guitars and electric guitars, for example. In Hollywood, “talkies” did indeed eclipse silent films, but Michael Crichton was wrong when in the mid-nineties he told the National Press Club that the Internet would eliminate television.

9. Some argued against audio books because the listener would be more passive. Reading requires engagement, or so they said. (Are you still with me?)

10. One more major battle area had to do with how the books were read. Should they be read by professional actors or by straight readers who do not “add” to the reading? What about sound effects, as in radio theater? Does this add or interfere? (Personally, I totally dislike it.) Much debate swirled around many of these decisions.

In short, I had no idea there were so many dimensions to this story. Today we have downloadable books on Audible and iTunes, CDs and streaming audio. One sci fi writer, a contemporary of Jules Verne, had a story in which people had audio books in their hats which they could listen to wherever they went. A Sony Walkman? It seemed fantastical at the time. Bottom Line: If you don’t want to call audio books reading, fine. They are great companions anyways. I just finished a biography of James Madison the week before, a president we seem to know so little about today, yet whose ideas are totally embedded in the founding fibers of our nation. But that’s a story for another day.

Here’s Matthew Rubery’s book on

Originally published at on September 18, 2018. Photos by the author.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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