Monday, June 27, 2016

When Books Do the Talking

In the recent entry on the probable ordinariness of Shakespeare as a person, I remarked as to how journalism is the oral literature of the modern age. As conveyed in the synonym “reporter”, journalists speak directly to those involved in newsworthy events, quoting these accounts directly in order to write a story (another telling word). Journalism is the translation of the oral into the written. 

But for the last few decades, storytelling conceived and originally carried out in written (or typewritten) form, has been translated into a type of oral literature, as well: the audio-book

I have, myself, listened to just a single audio-book through my entire adult life: a version of the Magnificent Ambersons, the 1918 novel by Booth Tarkington that was adapted to the screen by Orson Welles in 1942. 

I obtained the recording on loan from the public library only because it didn’t have a paper copy. Listening to Ambersons, I did reflect on audio-books as a reintroduction of performance into literature. 

This is what defines “oral literature” apart from the textual kind, and was the norm at least until the advent of the book in medieval times. 

Depiction of Native American storyteller.

When I was young, there were audio “books” — mostly abridged versions on long-playing record of children’s literature such as Jacob Two-two Meets the Hooded Fang, by Mordechai Richler. These were used mostly in schools, as I recall hearing that title in class. They were usually accompanied by an illustrated text, for the students or teacher to follow along. A little chime on the record would indicate that it was time to turn a page, as though no one could figure this out for themselves. 

Audio-literature did not become commonplace until the 1980s, with the success of the Sony Walkman personal cassette player.  As Wikipedia states:

Though spoken recordings were popular in 33⅓ vinyl record format for schools and libraries into the early 1970s, the beginning of the modern retail market for audiobooks can be traced to the wide adoption of cassette tapes during the 1970s. ... a number of technological innovations allowed the cassette tape wider usage in libraries and also spawned the creation of new commercial audiobook market. These innovations included the introduction of small and cheap portable players such as the Walkman, and the widespread use of cassette decks in cars, particularly imported Japanese models which flooded the market during the multiple energy crises of the decade.

Mostly, people listened to music on Walkmans and the numerous cheap knock-offs that followed them on to the market. But the audio-cassette was also a practical medium for the reproduction of books in audio form. Each one could hold at least an hour-and-a-half of recorded sound. 

A regular novel could be contained on five or six cassettes, whereas the same running-time would occupy an impossibly cumbersome and expensive twenty-five or thirty long-playing discs.  (Checking on audio-book titles at random at the library, I found that they average something over five-hundred minutes – almost or as much as ten hours.)   

Courtesy the Walkman, and the standard-feature automobile cassette player, the spoken word became both portable and private. 

Sound-through-earphone thus continued the individuation of conscious awareness as characteristic of modern times. But vocal narration of prose must inevitably be a performance, so as to keep the listener’s attention. 

It thereby attends immediately to the emotional and holistic mind, in a way that reading prose cannot. Long before contemporary digital-reader pads, which render text without the eyestrain characteristic of previous devices of the kind, the audio-book had already transformed literature into “media” — communication of sound and images through electrical current. 

Publishers have long created audio versions of their major releases, on audio-cassette originally, and later on digital and download formats. The Walkman, however, is a perfect embodiment of the “post-modern”. It (and its successors, such as the iPod) have served to intensify the withdrawal of self from surroundings. 

The very means for the marooning awareness in this fashion, is sound that is heard fully only by the user of the device (and it is mere annoyance if played too loudly for others to hear). It affects the more primitive forms of consciousness that are neglected, suppressed and underplayed by modern society. 

Early talking book.

Traditional media for the individuation of consciousness, such as written and printed text, affected primarily the rational aspects of the mind. Electric media previous to the Walkman, could very well be consumed individually. This is especially the case with television, but it and the other broadcast medium, radio, have also been frequently consumed socially. 

 The Walkman required individual use. It is thus enhanced individuality but in a different modality than what is witnessed when writing or reading a book, or attending to some other complex task. The electronic world represents less so the “tribalization” of consciousness, as Marshall McLuhan described it, than a still-individuated consciousness that, unlike during high-modernity, encompasses the emotional and aesthetic aspects of life, as a matter of course.

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