Remembering the Audiobook Pioneers

The first question I get after telling people that I listen to audiobooks is: does that really count as reading? Everyone has an opinion. But something else gets lost in this debate — the fact that blind people were the first to develop a form of entertainment now embraced by millions of other people. Audiobooks are a great example of what everyone gains by disability.

Today the audiobook industry is booming. According to the Audio Publishers Association, more than 67 million Americans heard an audiobook last year. That’s a dramatic turnaround from the days when audiobooks were thought to be exclusively for people with disabilities.

Recorded books started out as a form of recreation for people with impaired vision. The American Foundation for the Blind and Royal National Institute of Blind People issued the first talking books, as they were known, in 1934. Veterans who had lost their sight in the First World War were among the beneficiaries since, like most blind people, they lost their sight mid-life and struggled to learn braille. Recorded books offered them entertainment, companionship, and, most importantly, a way to read independently. No more waiting for mom to read aloud All Quiet on the Western Front.

Blind people established the world’s first talking book library by taking advantage of newly developed long-playing records. Whereas only a few minutes of speech fit on the old discs, the new ones played long enough to hold entire stories. Talking book library patrons enjoyed these records more than a decade before they reached the commercial market. It’s a rare example of people with disabilities benefiting from a technology before everyone else.

Blind and partially sighted people have been comfortable reading books in multiple formats (letterpress, embossed, recorded, and, most recently, electronic books) ever since. It’s the rest of us who have been slow to catch up.

In fact, the first wave of commercial audio publishers struggled to convince customers that recorded books weren’t just for blind people. As late as 1984, Publisher’s Weekly linked taped books to elderly people who’d lost their sight. Yet the numbers suggested otherwise: 98% of the audience had no trouble seeing. Most of them listened to books while driving. Here was something that people with and without visual disabilities shared: technology provided access to books that they would otherwise be unable to read. It was only a matter of time before the appearance of headlines like “Books for the Blind and the Busy.”

Yet the industry’s growth did little to dispel concerns that audiobooks were some kind of shortcut or cheat — even “Kentucky Fried Literature.” Sometimes I wonder whether those critics ever tried listening to a book. It’s hard work! It took months to retrain my mind to stop wandering during a story. Miss one character’s name and you’re screwed. No, there’s something else going on here. Georgina Kleege, who is blind, attributes the stigma against audiobooks to a prejudice against anything done without the eyes.

Not everyone adopts the new technology by choice, of course. The theologian John Hull once told me that the two things he missed most after losing his sight were the human face and the printed page. Hull remained an avid reader until the end of his life, relying on both braille and tapes. Still, sight loss changed his relationship to books. Handling his collection of antique books had once been a cherished pleasure. He loved their old-fashioned letters, woodcut illustrations, handwritten marginalia, even their odor. By contrast, tape cassettes all felt the same. In Hull’s words, “Nobody loves cassettes the way people love books.”

My interest in the audiobook’s history was partly motivated by fears about losing the ability to read. After all, my whole life centers on books. I have a PhD in English literature and have taught for over twenty years. What would happen if I suddenly stopped being able to read? Unsurprisingly, my fears said more about me than they did about blindness.

Helen Keller had a fund-raising trick that she’d use on potential donors. When a bill to purchase braille books came before the United States Congress, she asked a room full of legislators to close their eyes and walk around the room before opening them again. “We who face the reality know we cannot escape the shadow while life lasts,” she said afterward. “I ask you to show your gratitude to God for your sight by voting for this Bill.” Guess what? The Bill passed.

Many people nod approvingly after hearing this tale of empathy. But blind people scoff at the experiment: shutting your eyes doesn’t tell you the first thing about the experience of blindness, they insist. Instead, Keller was shrewd enough to take advantage of a well-intentioned but misguided pity for the impoverished lives of blind people. Such stereotypes of blindness as a deficit, affliction, or tragedy make it all but impossible to see it as another way of leading a rich, satisfying life. What could sighted people possibly have to learn about books from people who can’t see?

The audiobook’s growing popularity suggests that blind people were on to something. It turns out that you don’t even have to be forced into listening to books by a cruel twist of fate; people might even choose to read this way!

I’ve spent my entire life reading books. Audiobooks allow me to read even more than I’d otherwise have the chance to do. Now, driving home or cooking dinner represents an opportunity to squeeze in one more chapter. Sometimes I even drop everything to concentrate on a particularly engrossing tale. My dread of losing the ability to read seems like a distant memory. In today’s turbulent times, losing my sight seems the least of my worries.

So think twice before looking down on other people’s pastimes. Those pastimes might one day be yours too.