EPISODE 3: READING BY EAR
[Talking Book Sample]
Person 1: What is the position of the blind in the modern world?
Person 2: Is there any organization which champions the cause of the blind on a nation wide scale?
Person 3: How can books actually talk?
Michelle Macklem: You’re listening to ADAPTIVE and I’m Michelle Macklem
Adaptive is a series about how humans interact with technology. This series explores that how people with different and diverse abilities use tools and technology to adapt to the environment around them.
This episode we focus on a specific technology and take a historic look at how this technology has influenced mainstream technology that we all use today.
MM: The Talking Book
[Talking Book soundscape]
MM: Talking Books are books recorded in an audio format that are specifically for people who are blind or people who are labeled print disabled which means can’t read traditional printed books. Unlike commercial audio books that we have today, Talking Books are generally recorded without voice acting or dramatization.
Mara: Most people who read talking books do not want entertainment. My name’s Mara Mills, I’m an assistive professor of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University. My field of research is the history of so-called assistive technologies.
Mara: The narration in talking books, if you listen to talking books tend to be described as neutral. It doesn’t have the dramatic effects or the dramatic elocution that commercial audio books tend to have. You can play them at high speed, many people do change the speed of playback. There’s no sound effects, there isn’t musical accompaniment. And the narrator is reading at a fairly clipped pace.
MM: Mara has been one of the foremost scholars on looking at assistive technology critically. Instead of considering these technologies in terms of their scientific or rehabilitative value, Mara studies the social and historical uses of these technologies, like Talking Books.
Mara: By the 1930s, with changes to sound recording, we begin to see in the US and the UK and in Germany, Long Playing records.
[sound fx recording sound]
Mara: Phonograph recordings and gramophone recordings that were long enough, that had microgrooves, and were long enough that you could conceivably record a book on something like 20 discs. Before that Talking Books were a dream. But they weren’t really possible because sound recordings were maybe three minutes long. You could have a short poem recited, but you couldn’t have a whole book. So Talking Books arise in the 1930s, and in different national contexts, library systems begin to fund the production of Talking Books and the circulation of them to blind subscribers, and later to other print disabled subscribers.
Talking Book: The talking book is something more than a mechanical development.
MM: This is an excerpt from a recording that the American Foundation for the Blind’s did in 1938 about Talking Books.
Talking Book: When they give permission to the Foundation to record copyrighted books they stipulate, these books should not be sold to seeing people, and shall not be used for public audience or over the radio.
MM: What’s unique about Talking Books is how readers gained access to these books when they first became available. To access Talking Books, people actually had to have a prescription that said they were blind or print disabled. Talking Books are still around today but with digital audio they’re becoming scarcer. I spoke to Shafeka Hashash who’s been using Talking Books since she was young and also used commercially available audiobooks when she could.
Shafeka Hashash: My name is Shafeka Hashash, I am a Masters student at NYU. I’m blind so that’s why I’ve always used Talking Books if braille formats weren’t available.
MM: Shafeka’s experiences shows the difference between children reading print books and talking books. The level of choice and fun in actually choosing a Talking Book is a completely different experience from, say, going to a library or book store.
SH: You sort of just got these books randomly sent to you from the Library of Congress, which is the people who send out like the cassettes and recorded books in the US and you just got these books sent to you every month. Which is great for reading but not so great in the sense that like you weren’t really picking them. Um your classmates weren’t necessarily reading them. Of course you know you could request specific books if you wanted to but its very different going to a library I guess and looking through all the books and picking a book, as opposed to like searching through a catalogue and picking a book. It’s just like significantly less exciting I guess. So they send these recommended books or books you know for your age group or your gender or whatever it may be, I’m not exactly sure how they would sort through these things. So I did get books from them that I enjoyed, but I would say the harry potter series being an audio book was the first mainstream title that I was reading with a ton of other kids. The interesting thing about that book too though is now as an adult I talk about reading that audio book and other people have read the audio books in their adult lives or you know later years. Harry Potter for us was done when we were 15 or 16, but people read the audio book later in like college.
MM: While Talking Books now have a wide array of selection like Harry Potter, this wasn’t always the case. Early Talking Books were generally geared towards educating rather than entertaining, like this Talking Book from 1945 that explains how steel is made.
[Talking Book clip: Voices of Steel, 1945]
Talking Book: The making of steel is a big job and it has to be done in a big way. One reason for bigness is our tremondeous appetite for steel and the other we just said is the way it must be made.
SH: It was very cut and dry things like the constitution and the bible.
[Talking Book clip: American Foundation for the blind]
Talking Book: The selection of books to be recorded with government funds is made by the Library of Congress and covers a wide range of literature from Shakespeare and the Bible to Irving S. Cobb to Zane Grey.
SH: In the 1970s and 80s you had people who were like, ‘okay but like not everyone’s just not constantly reading their bible.’ You know. We’d like to read risqué books or wed like to read Jack Kerouac, you know these things that are coming out but those were like seen as inappropriate for the disabled and so like that’s just every interesting to see that sort of coddle effect. That comes in with books. And so you had books like the Womyn’s Braille Press that were brailing and recording audio books of things that were deemed too quote risqué. So a lot of books were about being LGBT other books were about women and sex, or the women and her body.
MM: And these risqué titles showed an act of defiance of how society was treating disabled people. That just because people were labeled “disabled” they somehow had less of a right to fantastic, fun and controversial books that everyone else was reading. And as sound recording became less expensive and groups like the Womyn’s Braille press could release different releases outside of the Library of Congress was offering, people could read a wider array of Talking Books
SH: So when I was younger I read books on recording, but I also read things like the Harry Potter series right which you could sort of construe as a talking book. I used to have a tape recorder with me in class. And my books were mostly - if they weren’t available in braille - were read over tape recorder.
MM: Talking to Shafeka it came across as odd at first that she would describe “reading” a Talking Book. But using the word choice “reading” instead of “listening” I think it points to a larger question of what do we consider reading? Thinking about the act of reading as something we do only with printed text is limiting. It leaves out braille, talking books, screen readers and other formats that should be considered reading. And remember, the definition of reading isn’t something that is set in stone, as Mara reminds us:
Mara: It’s easy to forget but reading is an invented activity, so the idea that there are certain kinds of reading that are better than others and that there are things that are called reading impairments or reading disabilities really gives lie to the fact that many abilities and disabilities are socially constructed, especially with the category of reading. Because reading in invented. Now that said, reading is invented but of course when you have millions of books being published in a format like inpkprint that exclude certain people just because reading is invented doesn’t mean that we don’t also need to invent access technologies to allow people who are excluded to obtain that content.
SH: I think it sort of belittles it to say that its just listening to someone as if you’re just listening to music or it’s just in the background. Because people are very emphatically reading these books. I’m blind but I’ll never be like: oh I was listening to Game of Thrones the other day, it’s like: I was watching Game of Thrones. Linguistically like there’s no need to have to make all these accommodations
Mara: There were a lot of controversies around which kinds of reading really counted as reading and in the early 20th century and many of those continue today. Some of those kinds of reading have been highly stigmatized. At an early moment, braille reading was held in suspicion by sighted people who felt that it was too difficult. Sighted people often didn’t understand what blind people were reading and feb that raised print which looked to the eye, to the sighted eye, more like ink-print would be a preferable way of teaching people how to read. Of course that turned out not to be true. Reading is an unusual case because after the late 19th century in places like the US, earlier in Western Europe, probably around the same time in Canada when public school became universal and literacy became an imperative for citizenship, people had to demonstrate literacy in the school system. They often had to demonstrate literacy to get certain jobs. Being excluded from reading became, it compounded one’s disability. Not only did one have an impairment simply because they were seen as not being able to read ink=print but you were doubly impaired by not being able to read, by being obstructed from access to all of the social spaces that were marked by signs. All of the jobs that required literacy, all of the news that created an imagined community in your place. You have compounded disability once public education necessitates literacy for citizenship. If reading is invented, and you can read perfectly well by ear or by finger then the idea that you’re disabled in terms of print is an artifact of the print itself. And it also includes people who feel that they might have an impairment or physical difference but it only becomes magnified into a disability in the social sphere. So its this wide ranging category that includes people who feel that they have no impairment and no difference even at all to people who have injuries and do feel impaired but maybe don’t have any recognition of that from the medical, legal or social system.
Mara: Print disability is quote unique among other kinds of disability as I said before, because it locates the disability in the medium.
MM: Locates the disability in the medium? Let’s think about this for a second. Disability is commonly understood as something abnormal with someone’s physical or mental state. The so-called ‘abnormality’ of the disability is often considered a personal limitation. But thinking about someone being “print disabled” flips this. It’s the printed text itself actually dis-ables certain people from reading it. And if you can read perfectly fine with a Talking Book, how is this really different from reading a printed book? We can think of the social factors and perceptions then that are then responsible for actually creating the “disability”. So, I’m not at all saying that disability is imagined or completely socially constructed. But Talking Books allow us to think about the technologies that exclude and limit certain people instead of people themselves being a limitation.
Mara: So one part of the story is about this whole range of audio, visual, tactile reading formats that have been forgotten by the mainstream of media studies that emerged in the early 20th century. Another piece of this story however is not about the formats which were often just read by blind and print disabled people but its about the components of these formats that spun off and then influenced or even sometimes radically transformed mainstream reading. For instance, Talking Books eventually influenced the audio book industry after World War 2. Talking Books were legally restricted in the US and also in the UK to blind readers in the 1930s, but after World War II with changes in the Long Playing record, changes which began in the Talking Book industry, the audiobook industry took off and people who were sighted began to enjoy reading books by listening.
SH: It’s interesting that audiobooks have become such a big thing. And even like podcasts for instance are the new thing blowing up and yeah we’ve had radio of course, but a podcast is sort of more of an in-depth sort of academic talk or whatever. And I think people used to think no one would listen to it, but if you took blind markets for instance, everyone was more than happy to listen to it and you didn’t just do it because it was the only option you had, you did it because it was a wonderful option. I think they’re maybe being phased out as an accessible tool, per say and more being phased in as just a thing - like Audible. But that’s a really good example of it - Audible and iTunes Books and whatnot. Like I was like sort of a very oddball. With a big tape recorder in class during reading time in second or third grade, but now audiobooks are the new big thing.
Mara: There wasn’t just technical shift there was a cultural imperative for aural reading, a-u-r-a-l reading that started before World War II because sighted people were aware of the Talking Book industry, it was widely advertised in newspapers and on radio shows and also of course sighted people began listening to Talking Books with their friends. Even if they weren’t supposed to. Even if they were legally restricted. There’s other examples of components peeling off from the world of so-called assistive technology, to have radical influences in mainstream technology.
Mara: One thing I’m working on right now are a series of technologies for time-stretching in the 1970s, they were basically components that could be added to a tape recorder that were tested on and marketed to blind readers so that they could speed read by ear, without having the chipmunk or mickymouse, or donald duck effect of the pitch shifting as they increased the speed.
MM: Time stretching is an effect that changes the speed of audio without affecting its actual pitch. It’s different, from say, just speeding up [fx sound speed up] or slowing down a sound [fx sound slowing down], which adjusts both the pitch and the speed of the sound, [this sentence is time stretched] Time stretching can speed up sound making it still possible to read things like Talking Books at a faster pace [this audio is time-stretched]. And time stretching is still relevant today, and its by audiobooks and podcast apps, and it’s used in a lot of music production especially sample-based music.
Mara: Those technologies, they’re basically the predecessors of auto-tune. These technologies that allow you to play with speed without changing pitch or conversely to change pitch without changing the speed.
MM: AUTOTUNE?!? That effect that became so popularized by Cher and T-pain actually has its roots in technology created for talking books. Autotune uses pitch correction software that builds from the Talking Book technology that allows you to change the pitch of a recording without making it shorter or longer.
So like this: Pitch [regular pitch], pitch [low pitch], pitch [really low pitch], pitch [regular pitch].
And so autotune was created to make vocal tracks perfectly in-tune or modify them in a new way.
MM: And here’s the thing, autotune is just a small part of the technologies Talking Books are related to. Beyond the commercial audiobook industry, Talking Books have been a part of a whole series of alternative reading formats including text to speech technologies like…
Screen reader: Screen Readers or VoiceOver software.
MM: Nowadays, screen readers are built into almost any computer, just check under your ‘accessibility’ settings. And they’re used by blind and print disabled people as well as people who can read printed text, like me. I use Screen readers from time to time when I want a break from staring at a screen. On my computer I can even change the screen reader to different accents - which is a really way to waste a lot of time.
Screenreader1[South African accent]: Hello
Screenreader2 [classic North American]: Hello
Screenreader3 [French accent]: Bonjour.
Screenreader3 [British accent]: Hi, I’m Daniel.
Screenreader4 [Australian accent]: Hi Daniel, I’m from Australia.
Mara: Blind and other print disabled people completely revolutionized reading at very early moment in time. In fact with Braille in the 19th century and in the 20th century they created a whole set of electronic reading formats that revolutionized reading in ways that most media theorist and popular commentators believe reading has only recently been transformed.
So there’s a number of ways that these alternative reading formats transformed the definition of reading for blind and print disabled people, but also have changed a surprising range of technologies for sighted people. They’ve changed reading by sighted people, they created kinds of machine reading, and then they’ve changed things like autotune that seem to have nothing to do with reading at all.
MM: So the history of Talking Books is complex, relevant and reveals that these books so much more than just an assistive technology. Reading by ear through Talking Books has changed the culture of reading, the definition of what it means to read and how certain mediums like print can exclude or disable certain people, while enabling others.
Screenreader: This episode was written and produced by Michelle Macklem with editorial advisement from Aimee Louw.
This research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
Special thanks to Mara Mills, Shafeka Hashash, the Canadian Federation of the Blind, the American Foundation for the Blind. With talking book sound files Courtesy American Foundation for the Blind and Mills NSF Award #135429
Music in this episode by Letiticia Trandafir and me Michelle Macklem
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Michelle Macklem: New show in 2 weeks, listen then.