The Audiobook’s Century-Long Overnight Success (Matthew Rubery)
November 3, 2023 |
The Audiobook’s Century-Long Overnight Success (Matthew Rubery)
November 3, 2023 |
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Today we present the first episode of a miniseries on audiobooks by getting into the history and theory of the medium. Audiobooks are having a moment—and it only took them over a century to get here. Dr. Matthew Rubery, a Harvard PhD and Professor of Modern Literature at Queen Mary University of London, pioneered the study of the audiobook, its history, and its affordances.
Among his other works, Dr. Rubery is the author of The Untold Story of the Talking Book (2016, Harvard University Press). He’s also the editor of Audiobooks, Literature, and Sound Studies (2011, Routledge). Matt’s latest book is titled Reader’s Block: A History of Reading Differences (2022, Stanford University Press).
In this fascinating conversation, we discuss the long history of recorded literature; the weird shame around audiobook reading and its cultural roots; the interplay between disability, neurodivergence, and alternate forms of reading; and what an audiobook criticism might look like.
And for our patrons, we’ll have our What’s Good segment at the end of the show, where Matt will tell us something good to read, something good to listen to. Something good to do. You can become a patron of the show at patreon.com/phantompower.
Today’s show was edited by Mack Hagood. Transcription by Katelyn Phan. Music by Graeme Gibson.
[Robotic music] This is Phantom Power.
Mack Hagood: Welcome to another episode of Phantom Power. I’m Mack Hagood. Today we do the first in what will be a short series on the audiobook. I’m a huge audiobook listener. I really got into audiobooks maybe 10 years ago. When I started working at Miami University, I had done that rough slog through my master’s and my PhD, and I realized that it had been maybe six or seven years since I’d had any time to do any real fiction reading, and I felt that this aspect of myself was just kind of starting to atrophy, starting to feel sort of two dimensional, and yet I sort of had to still keep the pedal to the metal. Publishing things to get tenure, had to write that first book. And so, this wasn’t really the time to sort of sit back and start reading novels again, especially when my wife and I had two young kids.
So, audiobooks to the rescue. My wife Bridget and I share an Audible account and we each also have a Libby account that allows us to download books through our public library. And we just listen to a ton of stuff, mostly fiction. Once I got tenure and I was able to resume something resembling a normal life, I even started reading more books on paper again. And we have a fantastic bookstore in my neighborhood. I’m a huge fan of, shout out to Greg at Downbound Books. Just one of the best curated small bookstores I’ve ever seen. But still, I listen to audiobooks. As much, if not more, than I ever have.
So, I wanted to do some Phantom Power episodes on the audiobook. What’s its history? What are its affordances? What are its implications? How do you go about making an audiobook? So, in future episodes, I’m going to talk to the amazing music writer and public educator, Warren Zanes, about his books on Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty, and the process of narrating his own audiobooks. One of which, the Springsteen book, was just nominated for a Grammy. I’m also going to, well, I hope I’m going to, interview my favorite audiobook narrator of all time. I don’t want to jinx it by saying her name yet, but, fingers crossed, she’s going to agree to come on Phantom Power. But first, I want to open this miniseries on audiobooks by getting into the history and theory of the medium. And I’m going to do that with Dr. Matthew Rubery. Matt is a Harvard PhD and Professor of Modern Literature at Queen Mary University of London. He’s also one of the first, if not the first, literature scholars to examine the audiobook, its history, and its affordances. Among his other works, Dr. Rubery is the author of 2016’s The Untold Story of the Talking Book from Harvard University Press, and he’s the editor of Audiobooks, Literature, and Sound Studies from Routledge in 2011.
His latest book is titled Reader’s Block, A History of Reading Differences, out on Stanford University Press. In this fascinating conversation, we discuss the long history of recorded literature; the weird shame around audiobook reading and its cultural roots; the interplay between disability, neurodivergence, and alternate forms of reading; and what an audiobook criticism might look like.
And for our patrons, we’ll have our What’s Good segment at the end of the show, where Matt will tell us something good to read, something good to listen to. Something good to do. You can become a patron of the show at patreon.com/phantompower.
Mack Hagood: Matthew. Welcome to the show.
Matthew Rubery: Hey, thanks for having me.
Mack Hagood: I thought maybe we could begin by just having you tell us a little bit about yourself and maybe your background.
Matthew Rubery: Sure. I like to describe myself as an audiobook historian. I’m really in an English department, but I do a lot of work looking at old audiobooks, so that’s a much snazzier title, and I teach at a university in London called Queen Mary University of London, and then my background is I grew up in Texas, I grew up in Dallas there, where you have to drive probably eight hours in any direction just to get out of the state.
So, you spend a lot of time driving, and you can see where my interest in audiobooks began.
Mack Hagood: So that’s the connection then with being a literature scholar, but already having had this love of audio books. Is that how you kind of got into this topic?
Matthew Rubery: Well, the two didn’t really come together for me, though, because audiobooks wasn’t something I sort of associated with my literary work until much later on. So yes, I’d been listening to audiobooks, you know, quite casually for a lot of my life. And those are the days where, you know, speaking of long drives, you would encounter audiobooks at truck stops and places like that.
So, they weren’t, they were something associated with truck stops rather than libraries or sort of high culture and stuff. So, bookstores might have had a little shelf tucked in the back that had some tape cassettes or something like that. But they were pretty, pretty off, off most people’s radar still.
And it wasn’t until, I’d sort of been in an academic career for some time. And then made the connection of, oh, there’s this whole sort of world of sonic recordings of books that no one ever seems to talk about. Why is that?
Mack Hagood: Yeah. And I really appreciate how you sort of make an argument for the audio book as a medium of reading. And then you also give us the long history of. That medium, you know, one thing that I appreciated was that you pointed out that Edison predicted the use of the phonograph as an audio book, right?
Matthew Rubery: Yeah, so, when I started poking around audiobooks wanting to learn more about them, I mean, I thought they were a decade or two old. So they had a much deeper longer history than I realized. So it just seemed like every time I found another recording, you could still go further back and basically if you do that, you end up going all the way back to the invention of sound recording and when Edison made the first recording.
So, yeah, he, he started, he tested out his machine with a nursery rhyme, Mary had a little lamb. So depending on how much of a stickler you want to be about how to define an audio book, I mean, the very first sound recordings were literary in a sense. I mean, at least they rhymed.
Mack Hagood: And he, he definitely thought of this medium as more of a voice capturing mechanism, some kind of mechanical stenographer rather than a musical medium in the beginning, right?
Matthew Rubery: Yeah, absolutely. And I think, I mean, the future of the audio book is all there in Edison’s writings already. I mean, so even though, I mean, those early recording technologies were pretty basic. I mean, you could only record a couple of minutes at a time for the first few decades. So you could record, let’s say, poetry being read aloud.
So, Alfred Tennyson reads The Charge of the Light Brigade in 1890. It’s a very short poem that will fit on the disc, but you could, you couldn’t record an entire audio book, till 30 or 40 years later, but that doesn’t stop Edison from sort of predicting that one day. We are going to be listening to full length novels, being recorded on his discs.
So he did sort of boast at the time that you could listen to an entire Dickens novel. That’s totally ludicrous because you would have had to have a hundred,
Mack Hagood: Yeah. And you know, one of the things that you mentioned in the introduction is that until 2010 audiobooks outsold eBooks. So even in, you know, when we think of electronic books, we still don’t think about audiobooks really. Although I, I think now maybe the world is sort of catching up to audiobooks and to.
You know, your scholarship, because I feel like there’s a lot more talk about them than there used to be. I believe they’re the fastest growing, maybe the only growing format in publishing right now.
Matthew Rubery: So I think you’re absolutely right. That was a dramatic change though. I mean, from the time when I began working on this project, so let’s say roughly 10 years or so to the time the book came out, I noticed a sea change in attitudes towards audiobooks. So, you know, I mentioned, having an interest in why, why don’t, people in English departments talk about audiobooks.
Mack Hagood: Yeah.
Matthew Rubery: And my research was kind of motivated by that curious nature of what I call “audiobook shame” that people who read audiobooks often are kind of reluctant to talk about it. And that’s unusual for reading because most people are sort of proud. To be readers and to, you know, want to talk about the books they’ve read.
They want to put their books on their shelf and sort of show them off. I mean, that, that’s, that’s a good thing, I believe, but audiobook readers usually apologize when they tell you that they read something. And I do remember talking to a friend of my family. So a very non-academic friend of my family.
My dad was a builder. So it was sort of his, his group. And. This friend knew that, you know, I was a literature professor. So he was very excited to tell me he’d read a book once. And I was equally excited to hear that he’d read one. But then he backtracked and said, well actually I didn’t read it, I listened to it.
And that really did get me thinking about people’s Complex attitudes towards these books because again, I mean, from my point of view, I was just thrilled that he’d encountered culture in any form.
Mack Hagood: Right.
Matthew Rubery: So, you know, why the, why the qualification? Why, why not just boast about it?
Mack Hagood: Yeah.
Matthew Rubery: But then when I started doing my research project, I Went through my own sort of audio book shame phase in that it was very difficult to get colleagues to sort of support my grant applications to do research on the topic people sort of raise an eyebrow at me when I started talking about my topic and make sort of jibes implying that this wasn’t a serious academic topic and You know, I did think about abandoning the project.
I thought well these people know better than I do but ten years Later, it seemed like everybody was listening to audiobooks, and those same colleagues who had been very suspicious of the format, they are now listening to audiobooks themselves on their phones. So that was a massive change in a very short amount of time.
So even though the audiobook has this long history, I think it’s only in the last decade or so that it’s really become a mainstream form of entertainment. Like you said, it’s ebooks seem to Get, get all the attention for a short period of time, but audio books seem to have displaced them, at least in terms of the national consciousness.
Mack Hagood: Yeah, I’ve, I’ve just recently been in a, situation where I’m trying to write a trade press book and I’ve been talking to some literary agents and they’ve talked to me about how it used to be that the audio rights were sort of a separate thing and that you could negotiate with a publisher whether or not they were going to get the audio rights.
Because in my case, I was, because I’m talking about sound, I had some ideas about maybe a podcast or an enhanced audio book either alongside or in, in place of an actual, you know, readable book. And, and, they were saying at this point, the audio books are so important to the industry that you can’t separate that out any longer.
Like they want to have those rights.
Matthew Rubery: What I noticed just again, in that sort of, that decade-long shift in attitudes that I used to ask the authors that I knew, if, you know, who, who read their audio books and often they wouldn’t know. I mean, they just had never paid attention. Like, Oh, no, I never thought to ask. That is so different now.
Like you say, I mean, those rights are quite lucrative, but also, I mean, the authors. want to be involved in that process. They either want to read the books themselves, or they want to have some say in who is reading it for them. They might want a celebrity to do it. So it went from sort of this sort of obscure thing to something that everyone’s interested in.
One of the big sort of, I think, landmark moments in audiobooks history is, it was the mid 1980s when the major publishers started publishing books in that format. It had been very sort of small, wildcat operations till then. But authors like John Updike and Toni Morrison record their books. And Toni Morrison is probably one of the only authors I can think of who, you know, has that sort of literary cachet, but also, I think, read every single one of her audiobooks, made a recording herself.
That’s very rare. There’s very few major authors before the 21st century that read their own book or even paid much attention to who was reading their audiobook.
Mack Hagood: And just a really stellar narrator of her own work, right?
Matthew Rubery: Yeah. Yeah. I, I did get a chance to interview her once about
Mack Hagood: Oh, wow.
Matthew Rubery: Was such an exception, and she also has, there are, recordings of her books made by professional hers as well. And she was quick to say. I mean, she really admires these, voice actors who read her books. She thinks they’re excellent.
But she said, it wasn’t the voice she heard in her head, so she wanted to make her own recordings too, and they are very different. I mean, it’s a good sort of contrast in different styles. So, I do find the voice actors are much easier to listen to in that, they’re just very skilled at differentiating voices and knowing where to put the emphasis, that helps the reader follow along and not get lost.
Toni Morrison, though, reads them in a much more bookish way, where it would read most of the voices in the same way, so you have to really be paying close attention because you’re not going to get those oral cues.
Mack Hagood: Mm hmm. Mm hmm. Yeah. Well, maybe that’s a good place for us to kind of delve in for a moment into the differences between reading from a page as a reader and listening to an audio book. Where would you go to sort of make that distinction? What, what, what are you drawn to when we’re thinking about those differences?
Matthew Rubery: So, often this sort of discussion goes right to, the distinction between is listening to an audiobook the same as reading a printed book. And that’s kind of, you know, the old debate, should we count audiobooks as, as real reading, you know, real in quotation marks. So I think that’s the wrong debate to have.
I mean, for me, it’s an emphatic yes. What I think is much more interesting is how the experience of reading is different if you’re listening to it or reading it in print. So, even though I think both forms of contact with the book are forms of reading, they’re of course very different. I mean, as it would be no matter what format you read, I think that’s going to influence your…
reception of the text. So those are much more interesting questions from my point of view. The narrator, of course, is going to have a major influence on your experience of a book. So there’s the old adage that, you know, a good narrator can really make a bad book and vice versa. You know, a book you love, if it’s read by a bad narrator, it’s going to ruin it.
The best sort of… comical example I can think of that latter case is, the comedian Gilbert Godfrey, who has this really nasal voice. He does a sort of spoof video, available on YouTube, of reading Fifty Shades of Grey, sort of this, you know, erotic thriller novel. So, I mean, no matter how into that book you might be, you’re not going to be able to listen to it read in that voice.
So that’s an extreme case. Usually it’s much more subtle. But, I think we need to sort of think about how the sound of the written word being read aloud, being performed, how that can sort of influence your experience. And even though I’m both a reader of print and a listener, I’ve read and listened to a lot of the same books.
It’s always, I notice very different things depending on the medium. So I might sort of notice certain sonic patterns in a reading that I wouldn’t notice otherwise. My attention will be drawn to different aspects of the page, things that are pretty easy to read on the page, like an epigraph, you know, quotation at the start of a chapter.
Those are very confusing when you hear them read aloud. So there is a lot going on. And I do find some genres work much better, when you listen to them than when you try to read them or vice versa. So there’s, you know, one conventional take on audiobooks is that sort of, sort of plot driven narratives are very good or narratives with a strong personal voice, first person narratives, or, or narratives where, let’s say, Celebrity Memoirs, something like that, where you’re sort of hearing the author’s voice in your head already.
So I think the one thing we kind of lose when we listen to a book is a sense of spatial form, how the words kind of are laid out on the page. There aren’t that many narratives where that is a big deal. I mean, we could think of certain eras like literary modernism. If you are very into experimental forms of literature, you might lose more than you gain by going over to sonic formats.
I mean, for most readers, most of the time, most books are going to translate equally well. And you’ll just pay attention to different aspects of them than you would if you were reading them in another format.
Mack Hagood: Sometimes it can be tedious if you’re listening to an audio book and the author is doing something where there’s sort of like a lot of found text or people are communicating through different media, like say an epistolary novel, and there’s like the dates on every letter and it’s just sort of like things that you’re, you might just skim over.
With your eye very quickly to get the sense of like, you know, okay, this is a letter and then you would dive into the text itself and the person sort of rather tediously has to read out like the entire say address at the top of the, the, the letter every time there’s a letter written or what have you, right?
Like those kinds of things can really sort of be a drag.
Matthew Rubery: Absolutely, and one of the knocks on audiobooks is that they’re often taken to be a form of secondary reading where you are not giving them your full attention. You’re exercising or doing the laundry, something like that, while you listen to them. So whereas with a book, you know, it’s getting a hundred percent of your attention in most cases.
So you can have that casual reading where you’re kind of dipping in and out with your attention. But my experience of listening to audiobooks is that they are hard work. I mean, you have to, I had to really retrain my attention span, my mind to pay attention and to not sort of wander or zone out.
So I have talked to people who sort of make the opposite case of what I was expecting. They say they pay much closer attention to words when they listen to audiobooks precisely because they can’t sort of start skimming or going ahead. The narrator’s pace is just, you know, steady and constant throughout.
So, things that they might kind of gloss over suddenly… They’re paying equal attention to those bits as kind of the, the crucial sentences or the quotes that everyone highlights. So I kind of like that sense of enforced, democratizing of your attention where you can’t sort of zero in on the parts you like.
Mack Hagood: Yeah and as you well know, because your research has subsequently moved in this direction, there are a lot of kinds of learning differences and reading differences. And some people just take in information with greater capacity through the ear rather than through the eye and vice versa. And I have sometimes noticed that the very people who will sort of make fun of the audio book as being somehow lesser than If you really push them, we’ll admit that they can’t concentrate on listening to an audio book.
It’s just too difficult for them to train their attention on something auditory in that way for a long period of time.
Matthew Rubery: That’s exactly my experience, that there’s that contradiction, that audio books are perceived as a cheat or a shortcut, not as being sufficiently hard work to get the credit that supposedly real reading deserves. But at the same time, people often say, “Oh yeah, I just can’t pay attention when I listen to them.”
So you can tell something more is going on there, right? But you touched on the idea that, you know, some people get a lot more out of audiobooks than they do out of print. A lot of my recent work has been on neurodiversity and so I’ve spoken to a lot of dyslexic readers in particular who, for them, listening to a book is a much easier way of engaging with the text, and they get a lot more out of it than they do in print.
So that seems like something I think a lot of us who teach undergraduates are encountering in the classroom is a greater sense of awareness of these different learning styles and that some students, yeah, different media are going to work much better for them.
Mack Hagood: Yeah, my son is one of those people. He’s an avid reader, but he is dyslexic and he listens to a ton of audio books. And then it’s very interesting, though. He likes to own the printed book as well. Like after he’s listened to an audio book, he kind of wants to have that tangible thing that he can go back and refer to.
Matthew Rubery: I’d love to hear that. Good. In my sense is, we talked about the change in attitudes towards audiobooks in general. When I first started giving presentations on my research on audiobook history, it was often a room full of skeptics and so at the end of my talk, every hand in the room would go up and we’d end up debating our audiobooks real reading.
But by the time the book came out, I was talking to audiobooks, you know, a few years after those initial presentations. The guests, often young students, they just couldn’t even believe that people had once, not taken audiobooks seriously. So I’m hoping your son will not face that sort of stigma that audiobook, users used to encounter.
I don’t see it as much anymore, and when I do, it’s, it’s often, it seems a generational divide.
Mack Hagood: Yeah, I have to admit, I mean, I’m old enough that I still feel the stigma. I was at a dinner party this weekend and I was with a bunch of you know, humanists from my university and some of them I think were, you know, Renaissance and medieval scholars and I had recently been listening to A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman, which is like this enormous study of the Middle Ages.
And I was like, just talking about some anecdotes and just said I had read the book and I didn’t say that I had listened to the book in part because it just doesn’t seem germane to me, right? Like, like, it’s just like, there’s no big difference as far as I’m concerned.
But then my wife somehow mentioned that I had been listening to this book and then I felt outed, like, yeah, like I’m like this shame, like, especially in front of like my friends from the, you know, English department or whatnot.
Matthew Rubery: So you need to start hanging out with your son’s friends then because there won’t be any of that shame. I absolutely still do encounter that. And the main place I encounter it is, sort of like you said, is with colleagues from the English departments, the place I would expect to be more open minded.
I do think that impulse is coming from a good place, that people are heavily invested in books and their identities as readers. And I think they want to preserve that sort of, special status of books and protect it from the encroachment of all these other media. So, I mean, we just always see the boundaries of books like most media, sort of collapsing as they turn into film and TV adaptations or videos or TikToks or whatever.
People want to sort of keep, protect the book from that. I think it’s misguided, though, because, as you say, a lot of people I know who listen to books are, you know, passionate readers. Most of the early audiobook publishers, you know, I interviewed a lot of when I was doing this research, it never occurred to them that there might be sort of this disdain for audiobooks.
I mean, they saw themselves as just book lovers making books accessible to people, finding ways for people to read more than they would be able to if they didn’t have books to listen to while they were stuck in traffic or something like that. And, and I find also that just sort of bringing up that, topic of disability really changes the tenor of the conversation that because if someone’s listening to a book, I mean, let’s say you in your case, a lot of people will criticize audiobook listeners because they think they’re making a choice, the easy choice and they’re trying to get out of work and get all the, all the gratification of high culture without kind of putting in the effort.
So there’s that. A well known Irish novelist Colm Tóibín has that amusing quote where he says, “You know, the difference between reading a book in print and listening to a book is like running a marathon and watching a marathon on TV.” I think that’s such a revealing analogy there too because, you know, a marathon is hard work, where it’s just a huge amount of effort and pain to achieve that goal, and a lot of people think of reading like that, that it should be sort of painful and stuff, and you should have to sort of slog your way through, I don’t know, 400 pages of James Joyce, to earn your distinction as a reader. Rather than just thinking about it, “Hey, is there a way we could make this more pleasurable? What would be a way to make medieval history fit into my life and something that would be enjoyable at the same time?” So, there is that kind of anxiety there.
Whereas with disability, I find particularly, I’ve got a lot of blind friends through having done this research and interviewing people over the years,
So, often, that is not a sort of casual or secondary listening at all. They are
Mack Hagood: I mean, the first scholar who really got me thinking about blind readers was a past guest on this show, Mara Mills,
Matthew Rubery: Yeah.
Mack Hagood: Who, You know, I just remember one of the things that she pulled out for me, which, which again, yeah, very humbling, is the crazy speeds that blind readers can listen at and still like to parse all the information they want to be able to read things quickly. Right. And, and so the aesthetics of the narration aren’t always first and foremost for them. And it’s more like a way of conveying the information into their mind for them to do what they will with it, which is a really fascinating thing to think about.
Matthew Rubery: Yeah, and Mara Mills is an incredible media historian. We, we hosted a conference together early in the writing of this book because she was probably the only person I spoke to who knew anything about the history of audiobooks. So, I mean, meeting her was a real high point of my research on this topic.
Yeah, so I had made a blunder and I wrote an early book on it, it was an edited essay collection on audiobooks. And I made a blunder in that where I said something like there is no speed listening equivalent to speed reading. And of course that’s absolutely wrong. I mean, The more people I talk to, the more I realize that, how many people actually did listen at incredibly fast speaking rates.
And now I am one of those people myself. I mean, I cannot listen to things at the normal rate. It’s almost always double speed for me. Certainly podcasts, which tend to be sort of informational anyway, but even some books, even though I kind of want to prolong the aesthetic experience of, you know, a great novel, I don’t necessarily want to speed that up.
But, sometimes, just even, you know, giving it a little boost really does help my mind pay better attention than I have, I’m more likely to mind wander if the reading narrate, if the pace of narration isn’t just kind of perfectly calibrated to my mental rhythms.
Mack Hagood: That’s fascinating. One of the things that I think disturbs folks about audiobook listening to kind of go back to this old controversy is the narrator is making a set of choices there. They’re embedding a bunch of choices into the experience of consuming the novel. Right. And, and sometimes. I hear a line read by a narrator and I’m like, no, you’re saying that wrong.
Like I, I just hear it immediately. Like you’re emphasizing the wrong word there. You’re missing the irony. Are you really paying attention to what you’re narrating? Like, and so this maybe brings us to this idea of what is a literary criticism of narration or what is an audio book. literary criticism, because I think you’re, that’s one of the goals that you had when you initially wrote that book is to start thinking in that way for literature scholars.
Matthew Rubery: I love the question about, you know, what is an audio literary criticism. I should just preface that by saying you know, that is a key difference that you’ve raised, what’s often called vocalization, that if you’re reading something silently in print, you are imagining the sound of those words or the sound of, you know, the character speaking in your head versus the narrator doing it for you.
So there is something to that in terms of being quite crucial, to the reading experience. But I also like the way, you know, you mentioned that, you know, you’re not sort of a totally passive reader either. You’re pushing back on certain ways of expressing the sentence by saying, no you’re saying that wrong.
And I think that’s what’s often left out here is that. The fact that I’m thinking about alternative ways of a line could be said while I’m listening suggests to me that there still is a similar process going on in my head while I’m listening to a book and I’m
Mack Hagood: A kind of agency for the, for the reader.
Matthew Rubery: Yeah, which usually I think we end up with a very stark contrast between an active print reader and then a passive audiobook reader, whereas, you know, I see much more overlap between the two. Or, again, just to bring in blind readers as a context, you know, I do know a lot of blind readers who prefer to listen to what we’d call AI voices today, which is sort of like computer generated voices.
And this is back when, you know, they had a sort of Stephen Hawking quality to them where they were very…they did not sound human by any measure. But they preferred voices like that because it enabled them to have much more sort of latitude in their imaginations for interpreting the work.
Because, because the works were not being pronounced correctly, they were constantly sort of, again, calibrating the sentences in their, in their minds. So there are ways of still getting that if you want that. I know very few sighted readers who do that, which suggests to me that, you know, they don’t necessarily want that much latitude.
They want some sort of middle ground there. In terms of that question about the audio literary criticism. I think there are just very few examples of that right now. I would love to see more. There are say magazines like Audiophile Magazine, a sort of a trade magazine that reviews audiobooks.
They’re very short but, they do prioritize talking about the narrative’s voice, for instance. And how the voice sort of relates to the content. So, I think that is one place to start. We all know from the history of working with previous media adaptations, let’s say, the obvious case of film adaptation.
The best reviews do not just sort of march through the two forms of media comparing, let’s say, the novel and the film and just noting how accurate the film is. The key is to sort of treat the film adaptation as a work of art in its own right. And then that’s going to be much more satisfying, right?
And maybe some attention to the novel and often in the sense of how does the cinematic adaptation convert things that work on print and, you know, kind of adapt them so they work on the screen, things like that. That’s when it works best. And that’s my hunch about audiobooks is that you don’t just want to sort of compare the literary recording to the print original.
You just want to talk about the aesthetic experience of having that work read aloud to you–perhaps how hearing it. Particularly mellifluous passages that stood out to you, or patterns of imagery that you may not have noticed otherwise. That would be where I’d want us to go or my dream would be, you know, comparing multiple sonic additions of a text.
A lot of our classics have been read by multiple narrators. So, I’m thinking something like Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I think that’s probably been read, you know, 20 times at least. So, you could sort of make some comparisons and see, well, what makes a good recording? Why is one better than the other?
Or, what does one narrator do that makes them easier to listen to than others, things like that. So some type of comparative criticism would be very exciting for me as well. Some audiobooks are like an event, and there are some recordings that I think are better than the print original. That would be where I would want us to have, let’s say, a review that focused on the recording rather than the print original versus just some book, you know, books used to come out as print and then six months later, the audio recording would come out.
Usually, they drop on the same day. Now, I mean, as you said, it’s big business these days but, but still some, some of these recordings are media events. They might have particularly celebrated reader, for instance. And that’s where I say we could sort of either do both or prioritize the audio recording.
Mack Hagood: Have you done much in terms of studies of reception of audiobooks, especially around, like, I guess I’m sort of thinking about the sort of parasocial relationship that a listener might want Get to a particular narrator. Are there particular narrators who are like total rock stars at this point that people are fans of?
Is there a sort of, yeah, is there a sort of fandom around audiobook narrators?
Matthew Rubery: Huge fandom. So in some ways, The fandom kind of undercuts what I said about being able to sort of listen to books critically and not be swept along by the narrator’s voice. But then the popularity of celebrity recordings sort of undoes that because people are obviously listening to hear that voice.
Although perhaps not that different from cinema where you can go to a film because, I don’t know, you want to see Tom Cruise. But you are also kind of forgetting that it’s Tom Cruise and because it’s a character at the same time. So, you know, both those things can be true at the same time but you’re absolutely right.
There are rock star narrators. A lot of the research I did for this project was on the history of audiobooks, was archival, and I would go back and find, you know, letters, pretty much fan mail written to early narrators describing how much they liked their voice and stuff and there are cases, for instance, you know, blind readers, I think this is very vivid, the reaction, the strong reaction, the strong feelings that people had for narrators was very vivid just because They listened to so many audiobooks, often for most of their childhood, through their adult days, so they developed, you know, long relationships where they might hear, you know, 30 or 40 books read by a narrator rather than just two or three.
And I do, I interviewed a blind person who told me that she had burst into tears when she met a narrator named Mitzi Friedlander because she’d been listening to her voice her entire childhood. So to meet this woman in person was the greatest sort of celebrity encounter that she could think of.
I find that this is true of contemporary readers as well. A lot of readers start by choosing audiobook titles just based on what you want to read. But once you find a narrative you like, you often just start listening to other books they have read. So just to give you my own personal example, there is a British actress named Juliet Stevenson.
She’s a phenomenal reader. She’s in films as well, but it’s as a voice actor that she really has captured my attention. And she does a lot of 19th century novels in particular. So, the novel Jane Eyre, but also Jane Austen novels. I think all of those readings that she does just transform my understanding of books that I’ve often read, you know, at least four or five times in print.
And then to hear her read them, it’s almost like, I have no skills as a reader and I’m just in the presence of someone who reads much better in person than, than, than my brain voice, than the voice I’m hearing in my head. So it’s very humbling to listen to a true professional.
Mack Hagood: Just, just to double down on that point, that was actually a revelation for me when I read that in your book. You had a quote where you said, the strong imperative to read for oneself implies that the best reading is one’s own reading. But yeah, that totally Isn’t the case, right? Like some people read better than your brain voice, or at least some people are better positioned to read particular texts better than your brain, which has had its own set of experiences and background is able to narrate.
Matthew Rubery: Well, in literature, a real exception among the arts in that sense is that, you know, we don’t read film scripts and imagine the action in our head, you know, we, we go watch the film performed by expert actors and, you know, same with musical scores. You know, you can do that, but most people would prefer to sit in here, expert musicians perform the music much better than you can in your head.
Whereas literature is an exception where we insist on sort of the amateur performance, that we can do, or that we should do it, for ourselves. I mean, Edison was predicting, again, at the very dawn of sound recording, that people would use audiobooks basically to listen to trained elocutionists or professional readers who could read better than the average reader.
And obviously that, you know, we have strong attitudes against that, but… That does sound like a pretty good idea worth discussing, you know, why not let someone read these books who are going to do it better than you can? And listening to professionals is humbling for that reason too, because It made me realize the inadequacy of a lot of my own reading, I mean just Everything from mispronunciations to misunderstandings, the accents I do in my head are, I think, sort of embarrassing. In terms of how basic they are compared to, if you listen to something like a book read by its author, something like, Angela’s Ashes, where the author is basically talking about his Irish upbringing, but it is his Irish bro that really makes it.
So it just enhances the reading experience so much more than I think reading in your head. And I’m sure he captures that to an extent on the page, but my guess is most readers who are not Irish are going to have an impoverished accent being heard in their head. So yeah, I say bring on the prose.
Mack Hagood: You know, it also makes me think, you know, I’m, I’m a media scholar and one of the things that we learn about in media history is sort of like this construction of radio drama as being a theater of the mind, right? And so there’s a very similar medium. And in fact, it’s a medium that gives you more because there’s sound effects and whatnot.
And yet this medium was kind of lavished with praise for piquing the imagination and allowing the listener to construct these scenarios in their head. Whereas here we have an audio book that actually gives you less and somehow because it’s being compared to a different medium. It’s supposedly an impoverished version where you don’t have an active role at all.
Matthew Rubery: Yeah, and I think that’s one of the big shifts we’re seeing now as well that, as long as the audiobook was compared to the printed book, it’s always going to be second rate, right? And for most of its history, there has been sort of that, anxiousness to make sure the audio-book has some legitimacy by trying to imitate the printed book as closely as possible.
So, you know, if you do see album covers or anything from early books, they’re often like a picture of the printed book, or they are reading, you know, all the kind of the, what we’d call paratext, the boring information of books just so that you kind of capture that sense of This being equivalent to reading a printed book.
But, I think in the last decade or so, we’ve got a lot more experimentation going on with audio publishers who don’t have that hang up about needing to be seen as the equivalent to the printed book. You know, there’s a real renaissance in radio drama, largely facilitated through, through podcasts these days.
But I think a lot of book recordings now are moving in that direction and trying to experiment with figuring out what an audiobook can do that a printed book can’t. So how can we sort of use sound or sound effects to enhance the reading experience? So I think we’ll see a lot more bleeding in audio books with other media in good ways.
I mean, there are a lot of publishers already making their books much more cinematic or they’re kind of experimenting with podcasts where you, you kind of have an official reading, but there’ll be, it’ll be mixed with sort of author commentary, recordings, Q and A’s, things like that, supplementary invitation information that you wouldn’t necessarily find in an audio recording.
So. Thank you. I find that really exciting and I’m sort of looking forward to seeing where this goes. But that would not have been possible a couple decades ago because people would have just been too anxious about not being seen in relation to the book.
Mack Hagood: Yeah. So this question may be like a sub question of your research about what is reading. This question that was raised by the audio book seems to have led you into this fascinating terrain of reading differences and neurodiversity. Can you talk a bit about your current work? And then maybe tell us a little bit about what’s coming next for you.
Matthew Rubery: Sure. So my last book was basically a history of neurodiversity and reading practice. So how people with various cognitive conditions that influence the way they read what they’ve said about how their experience differs from your average neurotypical reader. So I’m thinking here of everything from dyslexia, which is probably the best known of these conditions, to other conditions like synesthesia, where you might read printed words in black and white on the page, but you will see them in color or experience sensations of flavor or taste in your mouth while you’re reading printed words.
I spoke to a lot of autistic readers who had a very different relationship with the printed word, where often they would kind of fixate on the appearance of different typefaces or the texture of letters, the, the, the feel of ink on the printed page. And they could decode words and they could sort of read them aloud.
But often without understanding them because they were sort of paying attention to different dimensions. So I was thinking about these audiobook debates about what counts as real reading and obviously I spent a lot of time defending listening to books as real reading especially in relation to physical disabilities like blindness This was a chance to sort of branch out and say well what other forms of reading don’t we really give much attention to or take seriously.
So, I mean, the case I’m trying to make is that we should have a much more inclusive understanding of reading, that rather than trying to police the boundaries of what counts as real reading and kind of push people out, we should find ways of kind of seeing what we have in common with what people are doing when they’re doing something that looks kind of like reading, but maybe not reading as we normally encounter it.
Just to give some examples, there was a man named Kim Peake a couple of decades ago. He was the basis for the film Rain Man. Tom Cruise again and Dustin Hoffman. So a big hit Hollywood film. He was a fascinating reader in that he would read a book, he would read the left page of a book with his left,
And he could sort of speed read and then he had more or less a photographic memory so he could remember. Or whatever he read as well. So he would read a Tom Clancy novel, like the Hunt for Red October, which I think is around 900 pages in your average paperback. I think you’d read it in just over an hour and more or less remember every word of it.
So there’s an example of neurodiversity as a real strength or some of your listeners might know Temple Grandin as well. He’s one of the most famous spokespeople for autism out there. And she has more or less a photographic memory too, but she would often read books, but it wasn’t reading. In the sense that we think of that term.
She would basically just sort of take a, almost a snapshot, a photographic image of the page, and store it in her memory, and then when she needed that information she would go and retrieve it. So it was kind of like reading. And that she had the pages in her head, but she wouldn’t often know what was in that information until you asked her a question about it.
So those are just some examples that come to mind of different ways of reading that don’t normally come into our conversations about reading. And I find these examples usually help people reflect on their own reading practices and aspects of your reading that might be kind of quirky or unusual that you kind of just have set aside in order to talk to other readers like you read, like they do as well.
So it did, certainly working on this book really gave me a better sense of all the different ways of reading that are out there, and also my own ways of reading, ways in which I read like everyone else, but other ways in which I seem to be a pretty singular reader.
Mack Hagood: That’s reminding me of this book that just came out in August called “Fearfully and Wonderfully Made: The Astonishing New Science of the Sense” It’s by this author, Maureen Seberg and-
Matthew Rubery: Ah, she’s a thin seed, isn’t she?
Mack Hagood: Yeah, and the book is about the amazing capacity our senses have, like for example, she talks about this showing that humans can perceive a single photon with the visual cortex. It’s like there, there, there are apparently like, you know, these ways that we are, we can engage with the world through our senses down to like the molecular.
level, or even the photon level, this sort of quantum level, but it doesn’t make its way all the way up the chain to our consciousness, obviously, but that these potentials are there. These kinds of ways that we’re affected by the world around us are there. And so it would completely make sense that if we have these capacities, that there would be a diversity of experiences, you know, in terms of the way people engage their own senses.
Matthew Rubery: Yeah, I like that word potential too. I mean, so throughout that book, I use the phrase reading differences instead of reading disabilities, because reading disabilities sort of tends to focus on the negative aspects of reading in alternative ways. Whereas reading differences draws attention to the strengths as well.
The advantages, like, like you’re saying, or what we might call potentials.
Mack Hagood: Yeah. Yeah. Amazing. Well, this has just been a fascinating conversation and I just want to thank you for joining us.
Matthew Rubery: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Mack Hagood: Thanks, Matt.