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Thursday, July 1, 2010 06:14 am

Talk to me

The audiobook goes from public service into product


It is a rare human being who does not enjoy being read to. The soothing tones of the mother at the bedside, reading us to sleep, the soothing tones of the politician, reading from a teleprompter, reading us to sleep – our appetite for the spoken word is instinctual.

Happily, technology and big government have given us another means by which we can all have a book put into our ear – the talking book. The audiobook, as it was initially known, debuted in 1931 as the federally funded Books for the Adult Blind Project. When talking books became available in tape cassettes in the 1980s, a public service was transformed into a product. A noble means by which people who could not read might enjoy books has become a popular means by which people who choose not to read might enjoy books.

There is nothing especially new in this appetite for the spoken word. In frontier Illinois, the craving for words was satisfied by speeches or sermons or sitting around fires and telling stories. People drove all day in wagons to hear a good talker, and were not too particular about what he (less often she) talked about. (Lincoln, remember, won friends and political supporters with his ability to tell a good story.) When radio was king, the spoken play attracted audiences of millions. More recently, commuters starved for conversation for hours a day made talk radio hosts into celebrities and talking books into a publishing phenomenon.

Selling talking books earns publishers billions. They have given innumerable second-tier actors new careers as narrators and burdened public library budgets with new costs. Public libraries – obliged by their mandates to provide the unmonied what they are too poor to buy, and by politics to give the middle class what they are too cheap to pay for – have gamely kept pace with demand. Lincoln Library has more than 10,000 talking books on cassette tapes, CDs, or preloaded onto individual MP3 players, and now downloadable onto the patron’s personal player.

Like most fads, this one had passed me by. I am inclined to regard anything that pushes printed books off a library shelf skeptically, and having someone read a book to me seemed like having someone tying my shoelaces for me. But with a cross-country drive in the offing I decided to re-experience Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series of novels of action on the Napoleonic high seas by having them read to me by British actor Patrick Tull. What better motive to try a novel form of novel than Nebraska?

I was surprised to find that narration was not only a different way to experience a book but in some ways a better one. When we read to ourselves, we are our own narrators, and few of us are very good at it. Eager as I was to find out What Happens Next, I had read the O’Brians much too fast, and aspects of the prose were as blurred as store signs are blurred when one is zooming past them in a car. My narrator’s more measured pace was more like walking down the sidewalk and taking in the sights.

Neither can most of us match a pro’s skill at manipulating intonation and dynamics to suggest the drama of an incident, or his ability to suggest a character by an accent. One of the reasons so many people don’t like to read, I realized, is that while they read well enough – meaning they decipher the words quickly and accurately — they don’t narrate well.

For all the pleasure that ordinary books offer, they are not usually considered entertainments. Talking books are, and as such are vulnerable to the too-much-is-never-enough dynamic of the amusement industry. Full-cast characterizations with not one but full casts of narrators will be employed, turning the talking book into the audio play, and already publishers are hiring stars who can’t read because of their appeal to listeners who won’t read. Today’s single-narrator productions will be regarded as the equivalent of black-and-white movies.

The way things are going, we will no more need to be able to read to enjoy a novel than we need to operate a film camera to enjoy a movie, or play an instrument to enjoy a song. If life demanded only that we be entertained, this might be construed as progress. But reading and writing are already becoming, as they were in most of the world through the Middle Ages, arcane arts mastered only by an elite of scholars and priests. A trend that began with people telling us what we want to hear is likely to end, as they have in previous ages, with people telling us only what they want us to hear.

Until then, pull up a chair, clean out the ear wax, and turn on your book. For a while at least, they will have happy endings.  

Contact James Krohe Jr. at

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