Centuries-old audiobooks show there’s nothing to be snobbish about


Has anyone ever given you a sidelong glance after learning that you are listening to audiobooks?

If you’ve discovered a feeling of literary snobbery by reading with your ears, you are far from alone.

“There is a particular kind of shame associated with audiobooks; it is too often seen as not real reading, ”says Matthew Rubery, professor of modern literature at Queen Mary University in London.

“Audiobooks tend to be criticized today because they are seen as some kind of shortcut or cheat in terms of reading. They make reading too easy,” he told Sunday Extra on ABC RN. .

And yet audiobooks aren’t a new fad – they date back to the 1800s.

You heard that right. In 1887, Thomas Edison recorded Mary Had a Little Lamb read aloud, to test his new phonograph technology.

“I think it has a very good chance of being the first audiobook of all time,” says Prof Rubery.

“Edison started the audio book boom,” he says.

Thomas Edison, pictured with one of his phonographs, created what may be the first audiobook of all time.(

Getty: Bettmann


But even before that, reading books aloud was popular – think of Homer’s reading in ancient Greece.

So why has the audiobook been ridiculed as something less than literature?

And do things like amateur audiobooks, as well as books written after – not before – the audio version, suggest that audiobooks could finally get rid of snobbery?

A resource for returning soldiers

There was a problem with that first Edison audio recording on the tin foil phonograph, says Professor Rubery, author of The Untold Story of the Talking Book.

The technology only allowed recordings of no more than two to three minutes at a time, making recording long work almost impossible.

Then, in the 1930s, the recording industry developed discs that could hold up to 15 or 20 minutes of audio per side.

A black and white photo of two young girls near a phonograph with a small stack of audio discs between them.
Technology developed by the recording industry has helped audiobooks on their way.(

Getty: Bettmann


Technology quickly advanced and soon the first complete recordings were produced.

Initially, they were intended for people living with visual impairments.

“Soldiers returning from the First World War [who] had lost their sight were the first audiences to obtain audiobooks in the United States, ”says Professor Rubery.

Wild and extremely accurate predictions

The first recordings of complete novels took place in the mid-1950s, but long before that people envisioned exciting intersections between literature and sound recording technology.

An old black and white drawing of a man with long threads extending from his ears to a small box at his waist.
This 1984 creation closely resembled the 1980s Walkman.(

Public Domain Examination: The End of Octave Uzanne’s Books


“Edison himself kept bragging about that you would be able to record an entire Dickensian novel on four cylinders,” says Professor Rubery.

It was an optimistic claim – with the cylinders at maximum capacity of a few minutes of audio, hearing an entire novel would have required flipping hundreds of them.

But Edison’s prediction in 1888 sparked others. Five years later, a professor at the University of Minnesota envisioned the use of “whispering machines”.

“It would be a small miniature phonograph that would be stored in people’s hats, then connected to people’s ears by wires,” explains Professor Rubery.

“In a way, he was absolutely right, but that prediction was way too wild at the time. People at the time thought it just sounded absurd.”

Another oddly accurate prediction came from French visionaries Octave Uzanne and Albert Robida, who imagined in 1894 that paper books would be replaced by sound recording technology.

“There is an illustration in the story of a man walking around with a miniature portable phonograph strapped to his waist, and it is connected to his ears by what were called” hearing tubes. ”

“What strikes me is that it basically predicts the Walkman,” says Professor Rubery.

Why reading with your ears matters

Millicent Weber, professor of English at Australian National University, said “there is still work to be done to legitimize listening to audiobooks as a form of reading.”

However, she describes a recent positive change.

“For example, over the past few years we’ve seen an increasing number of students accessing audio book versions of fixed texts from our literature classes,” she says.

She says there has also been a reversal of the strict trajectory from print to audio, with podcasts like Rachel Brown’s Trace becoming a book, or Nick Earls’ Wisdom Tree short stories simultaneously being released as e-books and audio books.

Dr Weber says data on library audiobook loans and revenue growth from companies like Audible or Bolinda show “that there has been a really steady increase in production and demand over the past 10 years. last years”.

There has also been another change: the production of amateur audiobooks has become a “very healthy” industry.

“The largest collection of amateur audiobooks is the LibriVox website, which has over 15,000 non-copyrighted audiobooks that have been recorded by volunteers and available for free,” she says.

Professor Rubery agrees that “snobbery towards audio books [has] radically changed “.

“I think people are a lot less hooked on status issues and the way you read a book… There’s a lot more open-mindedness on the part of people,” he says.

“The question I am often asked is: ‘does listening to a book count as reading? I say, absolutely, yes… I think we read all kinds of ways. And reading with your ears is just one of the ways. “

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