ATG Book of the Week: The Untold Story of the Talking Book

by | Dec 5, 2016 | 0 comments

talking-bookTitle: The Untold Story of the Talking Book
Author: Matthew Rubery
Hardcover: ISBN: 9780674545441, $29.95 • £20.00 • €27.00
Imprint: Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016

“Histories of the book often move straight from the codex to the digital screen. Left out of that familiar account are nearly 150 years of audio recordings. Recounting the fascinating history of audio-recorded literature, Matthew Rubery traces the path of innovation from Edison’s recitation of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” for his tinfoil phonograph in 1877, to the first novel-length talking books made for blinded World War I veterans, to today’s billion-dollar audiobook industry.

The Untold Story of the Talking Book focuses on the social impact of audiobooks, not just the technological history, in telling a story of surprising and impassioned conflicts: from controversies over which books the Library of Congress selected to become talking books—yes to Kipling, no to Flaubert—to debates about what defines a reader. Delving into the vexed relationship between spoken and printed texts, Rubery argues that storytelling can be just as engaging with the ears as with the eyes, and that audiobooks deserve to be taken seriously. They are not mere derivatives of printed books but their own form of entertainment.

We have come a long way from the era of sound recorded on wax cylinders, when people imagined one day hearing entire novels on mini-phonographs tucked inside their hats. Rubery tells the untold story of this incredible evolution and, in doing so, breaks from convention by treating audiobooks as a distinctively modern art form that has profoundly influenced the way we read.”



Matthew Rubery makes good on his title’s promise, telling a story that until now has been boxed up in the archives, and filling in a key chapter in the history of books and readerships. This book is more focused and more thorough than any other in the field—as well as more interesting—and is likely to stand as the definitive history of audiobooks for some time.”—James English, University of Pennsylvania


Matthew Rubery has scored a decisive contribution to the history of recorded literature in this magisterially researched and compelling book. There is something new on every page, with all the facts and factoids at once apt, eye-opening, and revisionary.”—Garrett Stewart, University of Iowa

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