16 March 2021

Bottled Authors

The predigital dream of the audiobook

Matthew Rubery

Everybody seems to listen to audiobooks these days. As a recent marketing campaign put it, “Listening is the new reading.”[1] What was once a niche entertainment has grown into a billion-dollar industry thanks to the emergence of digital media, smartphones, and an online marketplace that makes it simple to download just about any title you want. Listening to a book is not the hassle it once was. (Take it from someone who remembers fumbling with cassette tapes while trying to steer a car.) The mainstreaming of audiobooks has been one of the twenty-first-century publishing industry’s greatest success stories.

That success would have come as no surprise to the audiobook’s pioneers, who had always imagined a future in which audiences would read books with their ears instead of their eyes. Fans have been predicting the audiobook’s ascendance ever since it became possible to record books. But when exactly was that? The audiobook’s origins can be traced back further than most people realize. Some historians credit Books on Tape, Recorded Books, and other mail-order libraries that arose in the 1970s to entertain commuters stuck in traffic. Others point toward the 1950s, when Caedmon Records released an album featuring the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas reading his beloved tale “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” Still others link the audiobook’s origins to discs made by the Library of Congress in 1934 for people who were blind and partially sighted. But the audiobook’s origins predate the twentieth century. In fact, the audiobook turns out to be as old as sound-recording technology itself.

Phonographic Books
There was no way to preserve sounds before the nineteenth century. Speeches, songs, and soliloquies all vanished moments after leaving the lips. That situation changed in 1877, when Thomas Edison began working on a machine that could mechanically reproduce the human voice. Edison’s team successfully assembled a device on which Edison recorded “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” a nursery rhyme that would become the first words ever spoken by the phonograph.[2] Depending on how you define the term, Edison’s inaugural recording of verse might be considered the world’s first audiobook.

Thomas Edison reciting “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on 12 August 1927 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the invention of the phonograph. The original 1877 recording was no longer extant. Courtesy National Park Service.

The spoken word featured prominently at public demonstrations of Edison’s tinfoil phonograph throughout the United States and Europe. Although no recordings were made of these exhibitions, press reports enable us to reconstruct what took place.[3] A typical demonstration began with an explanation of how the machine worked, followed by displays of recording and playback. The program opened with a greeting from the phonograph (“The phonograph presents its compliments to the audience”) before moving on to recitations, songs, music, and random noises. Members of the audience were sometimes given a chance to speak into the phonograph before leaving with torn-off slips from the tinfoil recording sheet as souvenirs.

“New Jersey.—Professor Edison exhibiting the phonograph to visitors, at his laboratory, Menlo Park.” From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 30 March 1878.

A witness to one of the initial phonograph demonstrations posed the question on every reader’s mind: “Are we to have a new kind of books?”[4] Unfortunately, that wish was years ahead of the technology. There was little hope of recording an entire novel in 1878 since tinfoil cylinders could only play for a few minutes and were extremely difficult to reproduce.[5] The first recordings that might be thought of as literary were not made until a decade later, when Edison’s improved phonograph made it possible to record longer works. Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning were both recorded reading their poems, but full-length books would have to wait until the 1930s.[6] It would be a mistake, however, to think that the phonograph’s limitations in its own time constrained speculation about its future. Even if the inaugural recordings consisted of nursery rhymes and snippets of verse, the advent of sound-recording technology made it possible to conceive of recorded books fifty years in advance of one actually being made.

Wax cylinder recording of Alfred Tennyson reading “The Charge of the Light Brigade” in 1890.

Bottled Authors
Long before the phonograph’s invention, there was already a rich tradition of speculating about how new forms of technology would affect reading habits. The fantasy of a mechanical talking book predated sound-recording technology by at least two centuries. Cyrano de Bergerac’s Histoire comique en voyage dans la lune, a seventeenth-century tale about a rocket trip to the moon, includes an eyewitness report of a “Book made wholly for the Ears and not the Eyes” that hangs from the auditor’s ears like a pair of pendants.[7]

The press began to speculate about the impact sound recording would have on the book even before the phonograph’s completion. The New York Times used an unlikely analogy to explain the invention to an audience unfamiliar with how the technology worked: the preservation of speech on tinfoil was comparable to that of wine by the bottle. When it comes to sound, the paper explained, the phonograph “bottles it up” for future use. The editors went on to make the following tongue-in-cheek prediction about the phonograph’s impact on the novel:

Why should we print a speech when it can be bottled, and why should we learn to read when, if some skillful elocutionist merely repeats one of “George Eliot’s” novels aloud in the presence of a phonograph, we can subsequently listen to it without taking the slightest trouble? We shall be able to buy Dickens and Thackeray by the single bottle or by the dozen, and rural families can lay in a hogshead of “Timothy Titcomb” every Fall for consumption during the Winter. Instead of libraries filled with combustible books, we shall have vast storehouses of bottled authors, and though students in college may be required to learn the use of books, just as they now learn the dead languages, they will not be expected to make any practical use of the study.[8]

From books to bottles: it was an audacious claim to make about a machine that had yet to utter a word. The humor magazine Punch responded to the conceit with a cartoon showing a cellar full of bottled opera to be uncorked on special occasions.

Cellar full of bottled music. From Punch’s Almanack for 1878, 14 December 1877.

It has often been pointed out that Edison failed to grasp the phonograph’s entertainment potential owing to his interest in developing it as a dictation device for use by businesses. But Edison did in fact identify other uses for it: playing music, writing letters, teaching elocution, recording courtroom testimony, and making clocks that announced the time. He also proposed using the machine to make “phonographic books”:

Books may be read by the charitably-inclined professional reader, or by such readers especially employed for that purpose, and the record of [each] book used in the asylums of the blind, hospitals, the sick-chamber, or even with great profit and amusement by the lady or gentleman whose eyes and hands may be otherwise employed; or, again, because of the greater enjoyment to be had from a book when read by an elocutionist than when read by the average reader.[9]

One advantage to using the phonograph as a reading machine was its accessibility to a blind readership; tactile alphabets for people with vision impairments required training, whereas anyone could listen to a book, including the many blind people who could not read braille. But it is important to note that Edison never imagined recorded books to be for blind people alone. From the outset, the hypothetical audience for recorded books reached beyond those with disabilities to “the average reader” lacking either the time, or perhaps the inclination, to hold a book. Crucially, Edison’s statement is among the first made by the recorded book industry to characterize reading as a secondary activity intended to accompany other pursuits.

Dickens on Tinfoil
Efforts to promote the phonograph as an improved version of the book express how conventional the initial attempts were to figure out what to do with the machine. Despite calls for a new kind of book, the books proposed in these accounts adhered closely to traditional formats. Most people used the phonograph to record existing print genres (novels, lectures, sermons, letters, advertisements) instead of new forms of speech devised specifically for it. As Marshall McLuhan famously pointed out, new media take their content from the media they replace.[10] In fact, few attempts were made to produce an art form distinct from print until the following century. Far more enticing was the prospect of listening to established authors like Dickens.

Dickens’s reputation as a performer made him a popular choice with which to illustrate the phonograph’s value as a reading machine. Discussions of sound recording frequently cited Dickens’s name despite the inconvenient fact that the phonograph was incapable of recording his novels since the standard cylinder had a maximum playing time of a little over three minutes. (This did not dissuade Edison from memorably boasting in 1888 that he could record Nicholas Nickleby in its entirety on four eight-inch cylinders.)[11] The author was nonetheless a shrewd choice since the name of Dickens was shorthand for the novel itself. Plus, he was among the most theatrical of novelists, famed for his reading tours in the United States and Britain.[12] At a time when the technical limitations of the phonograph prevented the recitation of more than a few lines of verse, it made sense to pitch the conversation toward the ideal rather than the disappointing reality.

Charles Dickens photographed by Herbert Watkins, St. Martin’s Hall, London, 29 April 1858. The year marked the beginning of Dickens’s fame as a public reader of his own works.

Edison intended to capitalize on the demand for recorded books by opening a publishing house in New York. But first it was necessary to domesticate the phonograph if it was ever to become a household consumer good. A key marketing strategy through which the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company ushered in the new era of recorded sound was by linking it to older forms of entertainment that had preceded the phonograph. The use of nostalgia to promote the technology diverted attention away from the potential threat it posed to traditions of reading aloud. This is apparent in a Daily Graphic cartoon portraying Edison’s idealized domestic scene alongside the caption, “The phonograph at home reading out a novel.” The scene is reminiscent of the archetypal Victorian image of family entertainment, with the crucial substitution of the phonograph for family members, who no longer needed to serve as “human audiobooks” now that a machine could do the reading for them.[13]

“The phonograph at home reading out a novel.” Detail from illustration accompanying “The Papa of the Phonograph,” Daily Graphic (New York), 2 April 1878.

Edison’s publishing house never managed to record a novel. Still, the press looked ahead to an environment unimpeded by technological limitations. Nearly everyone who responded to Edison’s overambitious claims foresaw a time when it would be viable to record entire books—even Dickens’s. In the words of one starry-eyed journalist, “The library of the future will be one which any man can carry under his arm.”[14] Not a bad prediction for 1878.

The Metal Automatic Book of the Future
The long gap between the phonograph’s debut and the first literary recordings of note did little to dampen people’s optimism. An eccentric essay written in 1883 by University of Minnesota professor Evert Nymanover, for instance, called for printed books to be replaced by “whispering machines” lodged in people’s hats. Such contraptions would allow them to continue reading while doing other activities: “Everyone while sitting in the cars, walking in the streets, reclining on beds and sofas, could be perpetually listening to Adam Smith’s moral sentiments, Draper’s intellectual development, etc., and yet be at the same time talking, resting, working at a carpenter’s bench, dressing, promenading, practicing finger-exercises on the piano, or other instruments, and so forth.”[15] Nymanover’s vision reveals lofty expectations for a format that has since come to be associated with distraction. What might sound perfectly reasonable to a modern audience acquainted with portable listening devices such as iPods and smartphones, however, sounded far-fetched to Nymanover’s contemporaries.

Nothing more was heard about whispering machines until 1885, when R. Balmer of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France published an essay in defense of them. While acknowledging the original proposal’s eccentricity, Balmer defended its core idea: the development of a portable mechanism for reading aloud. Phonographs could be used to imprint entire books on miniature metal cylinders embedded inside an automaton, he insisted, then inserted into a person’s hat and connected to the ear by wires. The tiny reading machine represented what he called the “metal automatic book of the future.”[16] Nearly a century ahead of the Walkman, the portable device promised to entertain urban commuters who were unable to read in crowded public spaces. One magazine observed that “a man might take a walk along a busy street, and have the book of the season read to him.”[17]

Nymanover’s device represented the first of a sequence of hypothetical reading machines proposed over the next quarter century by disability activists, engineers, futurists, utopianists, and, of course, novelists. Utopian writers paid especially close attention to mechanized forms of reading since it was difficult to imagine an ideal society in which books did not play a prominent role. Edward Bellamy was one such writer to rethink the book in the context of new sound-recording technologies. Bellamy’s best-known work, Looking Backward: 2000–1887, a science fiction novel about the transformation of the United States into a socialist utopia, has oddly little to say about the book. But he returned to the topic a year later in the short story “With the Eyes Shut,” a radical rethinking of the book written after the author attended a phonograph demonstration. For Bellamy, the phonograph raised the question: Why go through the trouble of sounding out the words on the page when you could hear them read aloud?

“With the Eyes Shut” reflects Bellamy’s interest in harnessing technology to relieve the burdens of labor at a time when the United States was becoming an increasingly industrialized nation.[18] Like its predecessor, the framed narrative begins with a man who wakes up in a futuristic society transformed by technology. That society’s citizens have little need to read for themselves since they are read to by an “indispensable,” Bellamy’s term for the portable phonographic device used to play spoken word recordings of everything from letters to literature.[19] (The name suggests that our dependency on technology was apparent even in its utopian representations.) The premise captures the enthusiasm readers felt toward the ease of listening to recorded books. In other words, a crucial part of their appeal was the very passivity for which audiobooks are criticized today.

We see this in the story’s first scene, which involves an unnamed narrator who listens to “phonographed books” using a “two-pronged ear-trumpet” plugged into the railway carriage. Here’s how Bellamy’s narrator describes the pleasures of reading with the eyes shut:

A good story is highly entertaining even when we have to get at it by the roundabout means of spelling out the signs that stand for the words, and imagining them uttered, and then imagining what they would mean if uttered. What then shall be said of the delight of sitting at one’s ease, with closed eyes, listening to the same story poured into one’s ears in the strong, sweet, musical tones of a perfect mistress of the art of story-telling, and of the expression and excitation by means of the voice of every emotion?[20]

Whereas modern critics have singled out “seduction” as the principal hazard of listening to recorded books, Bellamy welcomed being seduced. And yet the passage’s erotic language does anticipate the way the technology would be received over the next century by intimating the potential danger in having a book read to you.[21] The most enduring critique of the recorded book turned out to be less that it is an ineffective way of delivering the text than that it is too powerful.

The End of Books?
Utopian fantasies of a mechanical reading machine reflect the era’s optimism toward uninterrupted scientific progress. In this context, the printed book’s evolution into a new format was welcomed along with other technological advances meant to improve people’s quality of life. The fin-de-siècle French futurists Octave Uzanne and Albert Robida followed Bellamy’s lead in imagining how new media would remake the book. In 1894, their tale “The End of Books” posed a conventional science fiction question: What would society look like a hundred years from now? A group of intellectuals who meet in London to address the question foresee the replacement of the book as a bound object made of paper and ink by the machinery of a post-Gutenberg age. As the narrator concludes, “Phonography will probably be the destruction of printing.”[22]

In the tale’s imagined future, books continue to circulate through audiovisual media. The reading machine envisioned by Uzanne and Robida consists of a miniature phonograph strapped to a person’s shoulder and connected to the ears by a set of flexible tubes—an uncanny harbinger of the modern-day Walkman. By means of wide distribution channels and a variety of phonographic machinery, the spoken word was to reach a mass audience via free listening stations in public squares, vending machines selling Dickens recordings for a nickel, and even a Pullman Circulating Library for the entertainment of railway passengers. Modern-day troubadours could promote their phonographic books by taking them from one apartment building to the next, where residents could listen through elongated tubes stretching up to their windowsills. And, more than a century before the existence of streaming service providers, consumers could be seen subscribing to a bibliothèque universelle phonographique (“universal phonographic library”) capable of playing novels, poetry, history, and philosophy in the comfort of one’s home.

From Octave Uzanne and Albert Robida, “La Fin des livres,” in Contes pour les bibliophiles (Paris: Quantin, 1895). Courtesy Houghton Library, Harvard University.

We are now living in the sonic future imagined by the audiobook pioneers of the nineteenth century. Digital media have made recorded books even more accessible than Uzanne and his contemporaries predicted. Whereas Edison once dreamed of being able to play an entire Dickens novel, today’s “universal phonographic library” fits on a smartphone. Writers who used the advent of sound-recording technology as an opportunity to speculate about what form books might take in the future were right to insist that recorded ones were inevitable. But predictions of “the end of books” were premature since printed books hardly disappeared after audiobooks became a reality. People continue to read books on paper or on screens, even though digital audiobooks are now a viable alternative. In fact, some readers still view the format with skepticism, calling into question whether listening to books requires the same degree of concentration, imagination, and effort as reading them—in short, whether “listening” counts as “reading” at all.[23] Technological progress by itself is not enough to win over book lovers. As we now know, the audiobook revolution of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries would also require a change in attitudes toward what it means to read a book in the first place.

This essay is adapted from Matthew Rubery’s The Untold Story of the Talking Book (Harvard University Press, 2016).

  1. The phrase was featured in a 2018 advertisement for Audible.
  2. On the phonograph’s development, see David L. Morton Jr., Sound Recording: The Life Story of a Technology (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004).
  3. Lisa Gitelman provides a detailed account of the 1878 phonograph demonstrations in “Souvenir Foils: On the Status of Print at the Origin of Recorded Sound,” in New Media, 1740–1915, ed. Lisa Gitelman and Geoffrey B. Pingree (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003).
  4. Edward H. Johnson, “A Wonderful Invention—Speech Capable of Indefinite Repetition from Automatic Records,” Scientific American, vol. 37, no. 20 (17 November 1877), p. 304. The plural form “books” appears in the original.
  5. See “Cylinder,” in Encyclopedia of Recorded Sound, ed. Frank Hoffmann, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2005).
  6. John M. Picker discusses the Tennyson and Browning recordings in his Victorian Soundscapes (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 110–145. On the establishment of the Library of Congress’s talking book service, see Frances A. Koestler, The Unseen Minority: A Social History of Blindness in the United States (New York: David McKay, 1976), pp. 130–152.
  7. Cyrano de Bergerac, “Voyage to the Moon,” in Voyages to the Moon and the Sun, trans. Richard Aldington (London: Folio Society, 1991), pp. 79–80.
  8. “The Phonograph,” The New York Times, 7 November 1877.
  9. Thomas A. Edison, “The Phonograph and Its Future,” The North American Review, vol. 126, no. 262 (May 1878), p. 533.
  10. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1994), p. 8.
  11. Thomas Edison, “The Perfected Phonograph,” The North American Review, vol. 146, no. 379 (June 1888), pp. 646–647.
  12. On Dickens’s public readings, see Malcolm Andrews, Charles Dickens and His Performing Selves: Dickens and the Public Readings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).
  13. Leah Price, How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), p. 214.
  14. “The Phonograph,” The Public, vol. 13, 2 May 1878.
  15. Quoted in Ariel (University of Minnesota student newspaper), 9 October 1883.
  16. R. Balmer, “Whispering Machines,” The Nineteenth Century, vol. 17, March 1885, p. 497.
  17. “A Whispering Machine,” Cassell’s Family Magazine (London: Cassell, 1885), p. 383.
  18. See Howard P. Segal, “Bellamy and Technology: Reconciling Centralization and Decentralization,” in Looking Backward, 1988–1888: Essays on Edward Bellamy, ed. Daphne Patai (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988).
  19. Edward Bellamy, “With the Eyes Shut,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, vol. 79, October 1889, p. 738. Republished in Edward Bellamy, The Blindman’s World and Other Stories (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1898).
  20. Edward Bellamy, “With the Eyes Shut,” p. 737.
  21. See, for example, Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1994), pp. 141–150, especially p. 143.
  22. Octave Uzanne, “The End of Books,” Scribner’s Magazine, vol. 16, no. 2 (August 1894). p. 224. Both Uzanne and Robida, who provided the illustrations, are credited as authors in the French version of the story, “La Fin des livres,” which appeared in their book Contes pour les bibliophiles (Paris: Quantin, 1895).
  23. On the prejudices against audiobooks, see James F. English, “Teaching the Novel in the Audio Age,” PMLA, vol. 135, no. 2 (March 2020), p. 424.

Matthew Rubery is a professor in the English Department at Queen Mary University of London. He is the author of The Untold Story of the Talking Book (Harvard University Press, 2016) and Audiobooks, Literature, and Sound Studies (Routledge, 2011).

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