Research Programs: Fellowships for University Teachers

Period of Performance

1/1/2015 - 12/31/2015

Funding Totals

$50,400.00 (approved)
$50,400.00 (awarded)

The Untold Story of the Talking Book

FAIN: FA-57671-14

Matthew C. Rubery
Queen Mary University of London (London N10 1DN United Kingdom)

I am applying for an NEH Fellowship to complete a book manuscript titled "The Untold Story of the Talking Book." This will be the first scholarly book to examine the significance of recorded literature since Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph in 1877. My project traces the tradition of recorded literature from Edison’s phonographic books played on wax cylinders to talking books made in America and Britain for blinded soldiers returning from the First World War and, much later, the commercial audiobooks with which we are familiar today. Attending to the poetics and politics of recorded literature, this book contends that talking books are a distinct medium that have profoundly influenced the way we read.

Media Coverage

Talking Books at 80 (Media Coverage)
Author(s): Robert Kirkwood & Matthew Rubery
Publication: Insight Radio
Date: 11/6/2016
Abstract: The Talking Books Service from the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) is 80 years old. This documentary explains how the Talking Book Service began. Recorded at locations around London and within the archives of RNIB and Blind Veterans UK, Robert Kirkwood and Matthew Rubery tell the story of the first ever Talking Books.

“On Point”: The Unheard History Of Books In Your Ears (Media Coverage)
Publication: National Public Radio
Date: 11/17/2016
Abstract: Books in your ears. The history of audiobooks from wax cylinders to the digital age. We’ll trace the untold story of the talking book.

The History of Audio Books (Media Coverage)
Publication: Open Book (BBC Radio 4)
Date: 12/1/2016
Abstract: The history of audiobooks

Associated Products

The Untold Story of the Talking Book (Book)
Title: The Untold Story of the Talking Book
Author: Matthew Rubery
Abstract: Histories of the book often move straight from the codex to the digital screen. Left out of that familiar account is 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.
Year: 2016
Primary URL:
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Type: Single author monograph
ISBN: 978-0674545441
Copy sent to NEH?: Yes