Harvard University

What Is a Good Talking Book?

As the first full history of recorded literature from Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph to today’s surging audiobook market, Matthew Rubery’s The Untold Story of the Talking Book documents a vibrant tradition of audiobooks extending back to the late 19th century, as well as the devices, formats, companies, and government entities that ushered them along. In doing so, the book addresses a number of longstanding questions: What difference does it make whether we read a book with our eyes or ears? Is listening to books really “reading,” or is it something else? What accounts for the curious sense of shame people sometimes feel for listening to books instead of reading them in print?

In the excerpt below, Rubery details early efforts by the American Foundation for the Blind, the Library of Congress, and others to define the purpose and parameters of the talking book. The embedded audio player presents the corresponding section of the audiobook edition of The Untold Story of the Talking Book, read by Jim Denison and available from Blackstone Audio.


“What Is a Good Talking Book?” was the question posed in 1938 by Talking Book Topics, the AFB’s quarterly magazine. Once the talking book library had been established, its studios began to take an interest in quality as well as quantity. William Barbour, a former Broadway actor working for the AFB, singled out three characteristics: clarity, editorial accuracy, and artistic perfection. Above all, a good talking book faithfully reproduced the original book. “We demand that our readers preserve complete fidelity to the text which they are reading,” wrote Barbour. “We want those who listen to our books to feel that they are hearing exactly what the author wrote.” Exactly: the talking book was treated like the printed book in another medium.

For Barbour and many others, ink-print, talking, and embossed books differed only in conveying information via the eyes, ears, or fingers. The AFB’s policy of bibliographic equivalence assured audiences that they were reading the same books as every one else. This policy also sought to uphold the talking book’s legitimacy by aligning it with a familiar format rather than presenting it as something completely new. Listening to books might offer a pleasure all its own, but, if so, that pleasure was a secondary consideration. The goal was to allow blind people to participate in the same activities enjoyed by other people.

Talking books preserved the printed book’s features or at least a sense of “bookishness.” “Page” was often used instead of “side” to describe records, for example. The talking book was not only a spoken version of the book but also a bookish version of speech. The bibliographic emphasis ensured that talking books would be evaluated in terms of printed ones. Such fidelity rendered the experience of listening to a book as much as possible like that of reading one in print. The AFB embraced fidelity to the point that, in a few cases, narrators were asked to reproduce obvious errors (sometimes even spelling mistakes) in order to ensure that blind readers received the exact same treatment as other readers.

Talking books reproduced every word of the original book. The Library of Congress’s “Specifications for Talking Book Records” insisted that the wording be identical: “The Talking Book edition of any work should conform just as closely as possible to the text of the printed edition.” Scripts likely to be known by heart—the Bible, historical documents, favorite poems—had to be word perfect. Accuracy was stressed to ensure that talking books were treated as equivalent to ink-print ones. For instance, they recited verbatim the textual apparatus (front matter, acknowledgments, and so forth) skimmed or skipped altogether by the typical reader. The narrator of Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy spent thirteen hours on the fifty-six-page index alone. Chapter headings, epigraphs, and other paratextual features likewise had to be read aloud; manuals instructed narrators to read footnotes at once since records had no page breaks. Educational recordings even cited page numbers in order to convey the source book’s layout.

There were limits to the narrator’s ability to reproduce the printed page, however. While recorded books adhered to print conventions, publishers acknowledged that some books needed to be adapted for reading aloud. “The narrator must remember that his listener cannot see the page,” cautioned the National Braille Association’s Tape Recording Manual. It advised narrators to clarify textual cues that were easy to miss when read by ear. Words were spelled out for clarity in the cases of technical terms, unusual proper names (“Smyth” instead of “Smith”), and foreign words (“The journey to Aix, capital A-i-x, began at dawn”). Guidelines recommended translating foreign quotations. For example, Alexander Scourby translates the Latin and French in Thackeray’s The History of Henry Esmond. Similarly, The Three Musketeers and Les Misérables begin by spelling out the characters’ names.

The AFB and other organizations developed elaborate guidelines for converting typographical conventions into sound. The goal was to adhere as closely as possible to the original book’s layout while at the same time adapting the material to suit the needs of a disabled readership. The voice’s inflection could convey some typographical cues such as italics, ellipses, and parentheses; others needed to be made an explicit feature of the narration. For example, “end of chapter” might be announced even when the narrative ended with a blank space. Such potentially ambiguous moments serve as reminders that the needs of blind readers were not identical with those of sighted readers.

The Untold Story of the Talking BookLong novels challenged even the most attentive auditor’s memory. One reader complained that Dickens’s David Copperfield had ninety-two named characters; large casts were difficult to keep track of without being able to flip back through the book’s pages. A supplementary record identifying the characters in War and Peace prevented this information from disrupting the story. The American Printing House for the Blind’s superintendent opposed spelling out names for this reason: “It is difficult enough to read books like the above and I shudder to think what the result would be if we turn these readings into first-class spelling bees.” He recommended recording a separate glossary instead.

Talking books stuck closely to print conventions in most cases. However, a pioneering few took advantage of sound technology to show that the talking book could do more than replicate its printed counterpart. Why describe, say, nature when you could hear it for yourself? Leroy Hughbanks, president of the Kansas State Society for the Blind, urged, “Let us stop keeping our microphones in recording studios permanently, and take some of them into the forest and fields, where nature is at her best. Our blind people want to know what certain animals are like. They want to know what noises they make.” The microphone’s migration outside the studio confirmed that books could make use of other sounds besides the human voice.

The AFB’s first attempts to use sound effects proved a hit. One of the most popular albums included actual birdsong. A recording of Cornell ornithologist Albert Brand’s Wild Birds and Their Songs featured over thirty birds chirping and warbling—reviews described it as a singing book. Naturalist Clarence Hawkes urged blind people, who spent a disproportionate amount of time indoors, to memorize the songs in order to increase their enjoyment outdoors. At least one auditor intended to follow Hawkes’s advice, writing, “The study of the voices of these various birds and the recognition of them in the garden of my own home, will add a great joy to my life which, through my blindness has changed in the last year.”

Studios tried out sound effects on conventional narratives too. As early as November 1934, Christmas music, chimes, and ghostly noises were added to Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. The recording began with an actual carol, “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen.” “I got quite excited when I heard one of the recordings today,” Irwin told a colleague after playing the Dickens record. Music enlivened other recordings, too, from John Brown’s Body, which included songs from the Civil War, to Vachel Lindsay’s General Booth Enters into Heaven, on which the Salvation Army Territorial Staff Band played background music. Best of all, books about musicians could be made with actual music. A recording of Eric Blom’s biography of Mozart replaced the original notations with piano music. In 1937, the AFB even began to adapt (using what would today be called audio description) feature films such as Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The AFB’s president equated listening to these discs with a trip to the cinema.

Plays held obvious appeal. Initially, narrators read them aloud like any other book, with a single speaker performing every role. A woman in Fallbrook, California, enjoyed hearing Shakespeare read by an expert. “I wish I might tell him, whoever he may be, how much pleasure his reading of Hamlet is giving us,” she wrote. “It is as though he came right into our Little House and read to us.” Not every one enjoyed hearing plays read like a book, however. The constant switching between characters could be confusing or irritating. Dissatisfaction quickly led to plays being treated as dramatic productions instead of “as books to be read.” Fifteen actors replaced the lone narrator, for instance, on Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Audiences disagreed about the value of sound effects. Advocates saw them as a way to capitalize on the new medium’s affordances; after all, the talking book was “a volume writ in sound,” not ink. There was no need to remain tethered to print when talking books could play the author’s voice, set narratives to music, or dramatize them. One Oregonian described talking books as “like owning a little theatre all your own.” Others described sound effects as illustrations for people who couldn’t see: “Sighted people have their picture-books, so why should we not have our sound picture-books?” Use of the phrase “sound illustrations” among manuals reinforced this analogy to the printed page. In addition, the AFB’s Talking Book Education Project noted that the average student could read three times more quickly with talking books than with braille (the speed of tactile reading was a major cause of the educational disadvantage of blind children).

By contrast, opponents worried that sound effects would turn the talking book into something altogether different from books. Newspaper columnist Alexander Fried suspected as much: “Novels under these conditions will cease to be novels.” He urged publishers to leave literature “on the printed page where it belongs.” Charles Magee Adams’s hostility to the sound effects on A Christmas Carol echoed such concerns. Adams may have appreciated showmanship at the theater, “but a Talking Book is not the stage.”

Using sound effects for some books raised a difficult question: Why not use them for all titles? After all, the Library of Congress received requests every year from patrons who wanted novels dramatized. In response, the library reaffirmed its mission to reproduce books as accurately and faithfully as possible. It informed one patron, “We regret that we cannot dramatize the books being produced… The Division’s responsibility is to reproduce print materials as published so that those who cannot utilize the print may have access to the published works being enjoyed by those around them. Dramatizations would defeat our purpose.” Dramatizations were already available through radio, television, and commercial records (at least from the 1950s onward). It wasn’t the library’s responsibility to make talking books more entertaining than the original ones.