Histories of the book often move straight from the codex to the digital screen. Left out of that familiar account is nearly 150 years of audio recordings. Recounting the fascinating history of audio-recorded literature, Matthew Rubery traces the path of innovation from Edison's recitation of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" for his tinfoil phonograph in 1877 to the first novel-length talking books made for blinded World War I veterans to today's billion-dollar audiobook industry.
The Untold Story of the Talking Book focuses on the social impact of audiobooks, not just the technological history, in telling a story of surprising and impassioned conflicts: from controversies over which books the Library of Congress selected to become talking books - yes to Kipling, no to Flaubert - to debates about what defines a reader. Delving into the vexed relationship between spoken and printed texts, Rubery argues that storytelling can be just as engaging with the ears as with the eyes and that audiobooks deserve to be taken seriously. They are not mere derivatives of printed books but their own form of entertainment.
We have come a long way from the era of sound recorded on wax cylinders, when people imagined one day hearing entire novels on mini phonographs tucked inside their hats. Rubery tells the untold story of this incredible evolution and, in doing so, breaks from convention by treating audiobooks as a distinctively modern art form that has profoundly influenced the way we read.
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Fascinating history for audiobook fans
The Untold Story of the Talking Book provides deep insight into the history of audiobooks, from all the way back to Edison's tinfoil phonograph to, well, Audible. I loved learning about the early beginnings, and how a big vision drove the idea of audiobooks forward at a time when technology was not really ready for it yet.
Much of the book centers not just on the technical aspects, but also on perennial questions such as, "what qualifies as reading" and "are audiobooks still books" - discussions that continue to be held with passion to this day. We also learn much about how talking books for the blind and later Books on Tape laid the foundation for today's rapid growth of the format. My favorite parts were about the role of narrators, and the final chapter about where the industry is heading right now.
As much as I enjoyed this history lesson, there are two things that led me to a 3-star rating only. For one, the book could have done with a bit of editing. Many of the points are made over and over again and start to feel very repetitive. Additionally, and possibly ironically, I didn't warm up to the narrator, whose reading felt unengaged and in my opinion did not do the content justice.
Still, a must-listen for all audiobook fans!