How the audiobook went from a resource for the blind to a popular form of storytelling

Matthew Rubery explains the origins of the audiobook from the first recorded verse to its newly found respect.
Matthew Rubery's new book tells the origin story of the audiobook. (Rupa Photography)

Originally published January 5, 2017

An audiobook is any narrative recorded onto a set of records, or tapes, compact disc or a digital audio file that can be read by a professional actor or an amateur that has no experience at all," explains Matthew Rubery. Rubery is the professor of Modern Literature at Queen Mary University of London, in the United Kingdom and he recently wrote a book about the origins of the audiobook. The professor notes that some audiobooks strictly feature a single narrator reading every word in a book, while others can include a full cast, sound effects, and a musical score. But most people don't realize that "audiobooks are as old as sound recording itself," says Rubery, "when Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, the first recording he made was of a poem, 'Mary Had a Little Lamb.'"

Rubery explains, "the first full-length recordings were made for people with impaired vision in the 1930s," as there was a push to help blind soldiers returning from the First World War read for themselves. In 1934, the American Foundation for the Blind and Britain's Royal National Institute of Blind People worked with the music industry to create discs that could hold up to 24 minutes of speech. They found that the average full-length novel required about 10 discs, although War and Peace needed 119 records. But the commercial market for audiobooks didn't start until the 1950s, when Joseph Conrad's Typhoon was the first book recorded for the Talking Book Library in Britain. Publishers became nervous that people would take the recordings and play them on the radio, which would cut into book sales.

Yet, when Barbara Holdridge and Marianne Mantell, started up their record label, Caedmon Records, they became "the first major label to specialize in spoken word recordings of literature," says Rubery. The duo eventually approached Welsh poet Dylan Thomas and asked to record a few of his poems. When they realized they had only filled up half a disc during recording, Thomas offered to read a story he recently wrote called A Child's Christmas in Wales. "This story went on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies and became one of the most popular works he ever wrote," explains Rubery, "and many people have since credited this moment with the establishment of the audiobook industry."

Rubery says the audiobook is suddenly gaining the respect that it once lacked. "I've seen a tipping point in the last few years where everybody seems really open-minded to this form of entertainment," the professor admits. "Audiobooks were dismissed as a cheat, a shortcut, or even what's been called Kentucky Fried Literature," he add, but not anymore. Rubery suggests that one of the most important contributions this form of storytelling has provided is that it forces you to hear the sounds of words. "Audiobooks really make you pay attention to a different side of language," he says and that's important.


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