DECEMBER 11, 2016
WHEN LITERARY CRITIC Amy Hungerford claimed recently that she felt no professional obligation to “spend a month” reading Infinite Jest, I wondered how she’d calculated the hours she’d saved not doing so. Was she thinking of a month of bedtime reading, or several long daylight shifts of note-taking at a library desk? Read fast or slow? Does a quick snippet read on the bus count? As an audiobook, Infinite Jest is 56 hours long without its footnotes. This puts it alongside War and Peace (70 hours) and Lord of the Rings (53 hours) and more or less substantiates Hungerford’s claim: listening to any of these at two hours a day would take about a month. But then listening would probably overlap with doing other things. In The Untold Story of the Talking Book, Matthew Rubery describes one 1980s commuter and fan of books on tape who consumed at least 35 books a year this way. Other readers report on listening to novels while walking babies, cleaning, and sitting in the dentist’s chair. Perhaps Hungerford should have considered the options.
There are, of course, some reasons professional critics like Hungerford don’t listen to literature. Listening to a book allows you to do other things — cook, work out, drive — but it also makes it harder to do the things that most professional readers regularly do with books, like skimming passages, taking notes in the margins, turning backward and forward, and keyword searching. For a long time, the forms in which audiobooks were delivered were steadier, more linear, and harder to stop than the hand-operated codex. Florence Nightingale complained in the 19th century of reading aloud as a form of force-feeding, a simile Rubery invokes early on in his study. In this sense, as a book historian like Peter Stallybrass might point out, phonograph records and tapes were actually much more like scrolls than books, with the important advantage of leaving listeners’ hands free.
But here’s another thing audiobooks and files have in common: they are hard to go back to. I had books in all the forms Rubery describes: records, cassettes, and MP3 files. None of them would be easy to play now. They are ephemeral in their form rather than their content. They lie around with my first music cassettes and the Walkman I loved in what we call the “old media drawer.” I remember one Christmas where I bought everyone Middlemarch and The Satanic Verses on tape because I found the piles of remaindered cassettes in Waterstones so sad and doomed. I feel no pathos for these texts as books, in which form they seem to be enduring long past their predicted use-by date. Infinite Jest might take up more room on the shelf than it deserves, but it’ll probably still be there when I look for it in 10 years’ time.
Rubery is not interested in these comparisons. His stated purpose in The Untold Story of the Talking Book is not to weigh up the comparative advantages of media forms but to parse the whole concept of reading through the history of one of them. What do we mean when we say we’ve read, or in Hungerford’s case, not read, a book? How do we imagine it getting into our brain? Rubery’s pitch for this as his real question is risky given that what he actually delivers is a detailed, lively, and well-peopled history of the technologies, economies, and organizations that have driven the recording of novels over the last 150 years. The more abstract question of what reading is floats around, mostly out of sight, as something the book leaves us to answer for ourselves.
But this risky strategy for telling a more implicitly conceptual history largely pays off: Rubery’s project is more than the sum of its parts. He covers different phases in the history of recording books in a fairly predictable way: a long one stretching over most of the 19th century and focusing on the creation of audio libraries for the blind, and three short ones covering the early commercial stages of artistically curated spoken-word recordings, books on tape, and the current Audible market. The larger effect of all this is somewhat more surprising.
The Untold Story of the Talking Book maps how closely the histories of reading and consumer choice are intertwined. It turns out that audio libraries for the blind, at all their various stages and national contexts, have been funded by state organizations and by charitable trusts. Because of this, they funnel controversies about holdings that disappear in an open market for books. If only a few books are recorded, who is to choose the titles? What class and ethnicity are narrators to have, and how present should they be as personalities? Is reading mostly for pleasure or education? Do blind people need books that mention disability — or are these to be studiously avoided? Should blind war veterans be provided with pornography to listen to? These are just some of the debates that surface in the archives Rubery has so elegantly plumbed. And yes, as he promises, going there does get us to think hard about what reading is.
The same question might, of course, have been raised by almost any history of novels being provided by the nonprofit sector. Periods and settings where governments and charities subsidize our contact with literature (or theater and film) force some hard questions about why we might promote or withhold novels. Rubery calls up the records of the 20th-century committees that decided for blind readers which titles were to be recorded, and in what form. He reads the letters of these libraries’ users, who report in alternately delighted and offended tones on the choices being made for them. Rubery has found for himself the perfect laboratory conditions in which to approach reading as something controlled by forces other than the market. In this sense, The Untold History of the Talking Book does a lot of the work histories of canon formation, schools, missionaries, churches, libraries, and universities have tried to do in more headline-grabbing and explicitly political terms, but under less elegantly controlled conditions.
Likewise, by moving into the later 20th-century arena where all kinds of people begin buying their books on tape and audio file, Rubery is able to show how the discourse around what books are for relaxes once it becomes clear that they are for profit. No need to ask any longer if books representing disability or providing erotic content are doing their job: now consumers will decide for themselves. No need to wonder if Audible is giving us the books we need when it’s pretty clear that Amazon will sell us whatever our perverse hearts desire. Why choose one kind of narrator anyway? In 2008, Rubery tells us, five different versions of Tess of the D’Urbervilles were recorded.
It’s interesting to note that legere, the Latin verb for read, is also the word for choose. And this, in some sense, is what Rubery’s study teaches us: to the extent that “listening” has been seen as a poor substitute for reading, it is because it has seemed to limit rather than open up access to text. The unhappier beneficiaries of audiobook libraries complain in these terms, not so much that listening is a poor substitute for visually picking out of words on a page, but that they can’t choose the texts they want — or which pages to skip, or how a book sounds. The simple answer to the question Rubery asks us — what is reading? — turns out to be that it is something we’ve associated more closely with choice than we might have realized.
Unpacking the full significance of this claim would probably require a longer historical perspective. Rubery begins in 1877, when Edison recorded “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on wax cylinders, and ends in the present with an epilogue on text-to-voice technology. A longer account of reading as choosing would have to go back to the early days of print commerce to explore the thesis that oral cultures of narrative delivery were overtaken in popularity by reading, not because of print’s inherent accessibility or speed, but because being read to and spoken at didn’t feel so much like choices. Sermons, not to the blind but to the illiterate and the young, aren’t, we could argue, as satisfying as reading because they don’t feel elected. This is, after all, what I tell my six-year-old son, who currently sees no reason to read when he can listen to everything he wants on CD (the player and the CDs came out of the old media drawer when we realized we couldn’t bear to read Harry Potter a second time). If you read for yourself, I say, then you can choose any book in the world.
The association of reading with choice sounds in this sense pretty good — a reason, even, for being thankful that books have evolved with the market, rather than as a stand against it. Lucky us, not because we get to read pages but because we, unlike the blind who had their libraries stocked for them in the 20th century by top-down committees, get to choose. But of course, this would also suggest that Amazon is Enlightenment’s telos: the real reader’s paradise. This might, as Rubery ever so gently suggests, be cause enough for pause.