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Talking Books for the Blind

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April 28, 2017

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Talking Books

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Talking Books for the Blind

I received my first Talking Book player sometime in 1969, about two years after I was no longer able to read most printed material. This was one of the old, black fabric-covered players, weighing about 10 pounds, with a .25-inch headphone jack located at one corner of the foldup speaker. Soon after I received my first Sony reel to reel, and I can still recall the excitement I experienced with the arrival of each new book in its heavy strapped container filled with either several reels of magnetic tape or a stack of disks snuggled in paper sleeves that usually reeked of cigarette smoke. My first Recordings for the Blind (now Learning Ally) order included 70 books I had always wanted to read, and their textbooks were critical in obtaining both my undergraduate and graduate degrees.

I have witnessed a large portion of the history of Talking Books personally, from those heavy disk players to their lightweight plastic replacements, from disks to cassettes to the leap over CD titles directly, if not belatedly, to digital cartridges and downloads. I have also enjoyed an Audible subscription since late 2000, setting my 56k modem to download a book before I went to bed with the hope that it would be there come morning so I could load it onto my cutting edge Digital Audio Player. Despite my nearly half-century with Talking Books, recorded textbooks, and commercially available best sellers, there is still a lot of history I missed.

The concept of a “talking book” goes all the way back to Thomas Edison, whose very first recording was “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” There’s a lot of history between that first, lost recording and my latest Audible download. Happily, this history has been researched and compiled in an excellent new book from Harvard University Press, The Untold Story of the Talking Book, by Matthew Rubery.

The book is available in multiple formats: hardcover, Kindle, iBook, audiobook edition, and audio CD. I felt it only proper to obtain the audiobook version, which is produced by Blackstone Audio.

Although the book’s title uses the term “Talking Book,” this history is not limited to books produced by the Library of Congress and the Royal National Institute of Blind People. The author uses this term because, as you will see, originally it was a goal, a dream waiting for technology to catch up in order to be realized.


The author begins with an extended preface wrestling with these three issues surrounding recorded books:

  • Does an audiobook have standing as an actual book?
  • The public’s changing reception and acceptance of audiobooks.
  • The still ongoing controversy over whether listening to a book counts as reading.

Rubery presents the facts without judgment, though in my personal opinion there is one area in which the facts are incomplete. When discussing whether or not listening to a book is the same as reading, the author cites studies of braille readers in which they discover that the visual cortex of such readers is stimulated the same as it is with print readers. In people who listen to books these areas are not stimulated. There seems to be little research as to what happens when a blind person listens to an audiobook. Myself, I often find my eyes tracking from left to right as I listen–especially when I am listening to synthesized speech, where the line breaks are more obvious–and the letters and words appear in my mind’s eye. I asked a blind friend who has never read print and who is a proficient braille reader about this–he relates the same phenomenon, only with braille letters and words. Interestingly, both of us find ourselves visualizing the words of overheard conversations when we are bored.

The remainder of the book is divided into three parts: Origins of Audiobooks, Talking Books for the Blind, and Audiobooks Go Mainstream.

Origins of Audiobooks

The very first recording Thomas Edison ever made was a recitation of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” which can be considered the first audiobook. The original recording was lost, but Edison did re-record it, and you can hear this recording on YouTube.

Since recording technology could only capture minutes of sound at the time, the dream of audiobooks was just that, a dream. But it is fun, learning about some of the grandiose dreams some people had, including hats containing audio encyclopedias, stores stocked with “Books in bottles,” and public books with tubes leading in through the windows of nearby houses so the great works of literature could be played to all.

Talking Books for the Blind

The lion’s share of this book is devoted to the history of Talking Books for the Blind, which were originally sponsored here in the US by our own American Foundation for the Blind, and in Great Britain by the Royal National Institute of Blind People. In both cases it took the blinded veterans of World War I to spur action. Prior to the war, blindness was not considered a societal obligation. But blinded veterans were a different matter.

The first Talking Book produced by AFB and the Library of Congress was a recording of “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It was followed by such patriotic documents as the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. I am told that the Library of Congress still has copies of these old recordings. I’d like to take this opportunity to encourage them to create a sampler book of some of these recordings.

At first it was deemed that all recorded books should be instructional and inspirational. Very little fiction was allowed at first, but readers began to demand it, and so things changed.

Rubery offers a number of snippets of correspondents from early readers. I was especially amused by the woman who excoriated the service severely for sending her what she considered to be a filthy book, but ended her letter by requesting she be sent another book by the same author.

The book covers the issues of book selection, censorship–both sexual and political–and the move from active to passive narration, where the narrator does his or her best to remain in the background. It also delves into the initial difficulties encountered when seeking rights. For example, both Margret Mitchell and Rudyard Kipling resisted for years having their books recorded for the blind, as both were convinced the recordings would wind up being played on the radio and thus affect future book royalties.

Initially, Helen Keller was against Talking Books, as she felt it would diminish braille literacy. However since most blind people were older and did not know braille she changed her viewpoint, and in fact, it was due to her encouragement the Library of Congress became involved.

Audiobooks Go Mainstream

Ironically, according to Rubery, it was the success of Talking Books for the Blind that for years inhibited the general public from considering audiobooks. Recorded books were for the blind, and they were a lazy way to read, and it wasn’t really reading, anyway.

Not until 1952 when an upstart recording company called Caedmon Audio released Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” did people begin listening to what were then called “spoken word” recordings. Indeed, I find on Wikipedia that the original recording was a 2008 selection for the United States National Recording Registry, stating that it is “credited with launching the audiobook industry in the United States.” I’d like to amend that to “commercially available audiobooks.” Other famous authors followed, including Carl Sandburg and Arthur C. Clark. An LPs still-limited space meant there were considerable abridgements, which led to adaptions, and even dramatizations, with full casts, music, and sound effects.

Rubery concludes the book with a history of commercially available audiobooks, from Books on Tape all the way through books on CD and now downloadable books from various sources, including the reigning king, Audible.

The old arguments have returned: Should the works be dramatized or narrated in a neutral voice that stays out of the way of the narrative? Are we “reading” or “listening” to books, which can now even be read to us by artificial speech? There is also one new controversy not present in Talking Books for the Blind: should the complete text be recorded, or are abridgements OK?

Happily, the last of these has more or less been decided on the unabridged side of the argument. As for the other two, does it really matter? Either way, we are consuming more books, making better use of our time to “read” or “listen” on the go. Here I have to agree wholeheartedly with the author when he sums up the audiobook experience delightfully: “Audiobooks are for people who hate reading and for those of us who love reading. Audiobooks are for people who can’t read, and for people who can’t read enough.”


When I was 16 I read what was available; these days I read what I want. If I see an interesting author on TV, or hear about a great new book on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” I can nearly always find it available in some accessible format immediately. I can’t imagine a life without books, and this book was a real “eye-opener” as to all it took to get us from there to here.

Above all, let us not forget that, sighted or blind, for nearly all of us our first experience with books was via the spoken word–the voices of our mothers and fathers who read to us and instilled in us the joys and pleasures of a good book.

About the Author

Matthew Rubery is an audiobook historian and Professor of Modern Literature at Queen Mary University of London. He edited the essay collection Audiobooks, Literature, and Sound Studies and co-curated “How We Read: A Sensory History of Books for Blind People,” a public exhibition held at the UK’s first annual Being Human festival.

Book Information

Title: The Untold Story of the Talking Book, by Matthew Rubery (Harvard University Press)

Price: Hardcover, $29.95; Kindle, $16.17; Audible, $24.47 (or free with 30 day Audible trial); audio CD, $29.95

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