“I’m addicted to audiobooks.”
Like the millions of people who listen to audiobooks, I love the oral storytelling tradition. My habit may have caused me to lose friends when I refused to remove my earbuds or preferred to drive alone to continue listening to a book.
Here, in Part 1 I’m reviewing a quick history of audiobooks. In Part 2, I’ll tell how I’ve become part of the audiobook world as an author rather than as only a listener. It’s OK to skip to Part 2.
Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph in 1877 allowed for very short voice recordings like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” on a cylinder. In 1901, 10-inch disc records appeared and slowly improved and grew larger and better for music. For a long time after 1932 voice recording’s main use remained mostly to assist people with vision disabilities.
In 1952 two 22–year–old women, Marianne Roney and Barbara Cohen, established a new record label called Caedmon and convinced Dylan Thomas to read his poetry and A Child’s Christmas in Wales to create the first spoken word recording. Soon music stores carried vinyl poetry, plays, and stand-up comics like George Carlin and Rodney Dangerfield.
Cassette tapes were invented in 1963. With only 45 minutes per side it took quite a few to produce an entire book. (Remember Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander and the Bible on cassettes). As popularity increased bookstores offered audio sections and public libraries began collections. Book-of-the-Month Club offered audio options.
Listening On the Go
With the release of the Sony Walkman in 1979 audiobooks moved from the armchair to the hiking trail and driver’s seat. Audiotape rental agencies rented by mail or walk-in rental locations, often near interstate highways (sort of precursor to Audible airport kiosks). I made cross country drives that took extra miles in order to finish a book and return it at the exit.
Auto manufacturers introduced players in cars, first for cassettes, then CDs. Tapes melted in your car, but the greatest danger was switching cassettes or CDs while driving. I remember wanting a new car that played cassettes so my player wouldn’t slide across the seat out of reach. Later I wanted a car that played CDs, then one with a plug-in for my iPod. I never seemed to be driving the car with the latest tech. Even now I plug in an IPod by a long connector cord. At least my car’s sound system pauses the book off when I stop and resumes then I go!
The change from tapes to compact discs came about in the 80s and by 2004 cassettes were phased out. Abridged editions disappeared and the availability of books from classics to the latest best sellers became common. The more compact MP3 format was around (offering less shuffling of CDs) but didn’t catch on before personal computer downloads dominated audio tech.
Audible & Downloads
Audible began as a tech startup and online book club in 1995. I must have been one of the early adapters and remember great customer support with download problems onto a series of devices. After downloading the software, every month members chose from books, lectures, public radio programs or newspapers.
Four years before the iPod in 1997Audible produced a digital player and gave free MP3 players with memberships. In 2008 Audible was acquired by Amazon and about the same time became a publisher, first publishing science fiction classics, and later original works and podcasts.
Almost all MP3 players were designed for music. Audiobooks were not albums chapters were not songs, and audiobook listeners were not necessarily music listeners. Losing your place in a song or skipping around wasn’t serious for music fans but book chapters chopped up or out of order is another story. Whoever invented SHUFFLE didn’t read books.
I belonged to an early online group where industry people and narrators talked about great audio books and the best players. They had such great hopes for the future. So much has come to be, but devices are still made for music listeners. And I still believe SHUFFLE is the work of the devil.
And now the handiest device is the one most people carry – a phone. Yet for the true addict receiving a phone call becomes an inconvenient interruption.
Since 2005, these cute devices are the simplest way for a reader to find out if they like audiobooks. Borrow a Playaway just like a book from your library, insert a battery into the 2-ounce player, plug in your earbuds, and listen. No computer needed. They’re also a nice back up for the addict in case all your tech devices fail.
No matter the device or technology to get the book to you, it is all part of the oral tradition whether you’re reading for stories or transmitting facts. I’ve never read some of my favorite authors on the printed page.