Category Archives: Literacy

When Audio Leads

On the heels of the London Book Fair’s attention to audiobooks this year, a story in yesterday’s Entertainment section of BBC News goes more deeply into the medium as its own literary form. Four salient points need attention by librarians, vendors, teachers, and readers regarding how audio-format reading addresses more than just an option for busy consumers:

  1. Audiobook production, as a predetermined publication end, can give authors an opportunity to explore and expose specific narrative styles. Poet and novelist Sophie Hannah points up her desire to make specific use of dialog, when her writing is to be recorded in audio. Knowing that the ultimate publication of a story will be for the ear, rather than the eye, can lead to choices of words and phrasings with specifically auditory power and character and relationship building might take an alternate course, through dialog, than when such developmental passages are intended to be presented as text.
  2. Creating literature for audio sharing takes the role of storyteller back to the roots of literature itself. Attending to how a narrative sounds aloud echoes the role played by epic poets in making the narrative’s sound compelling enough to follow, remember, and revisit.
  3. Reading with one’s ears requires mental attention, just as reading with one’s eyes does. To use audiobooks as background noise defeats the whole purpose of playing them.
  4. And, in a point worth considerable examination and corresponding pilot project study, author and former teacher
    Joanne Harris

    Joanne Harris suggests that audiobooks may offer specific appeal to boys who have been trained that reading is a passive activity.

While the business end of the BBC article is interesting, in that there seems to be increasing harmony between styles of audiobook recording and listening in the UK and the US, these four points go much further than marketing. Each one offers insights for consideration in library programming, classrooms, and practice by both authors and narrators.

 

A Poem’s Proof of Aural Power

WEST MOUNTAIN EPILOGUE A READING BY JAY PARINI FROM HIS NEW AND COLLECTED POEMS: 1975-2015 by Jay Parini | Read by Jay Parini Beacon Press | Unabridged Selections, Beacon Press

Thanks to both document digitization and audio recording, we can engage both eyes and ears in extending the life of the oldest English language poem extant. The British Library’s digitization of an early manuscript copy of Beowulf (which, of course, is an epic predating its inscription) is cataloged to include its physical properties as well as presented in full color(s) on screen. As a thousand-year-old document, it looks admirable and the description of its fiber content also provides suggestions of both scent and touch sensations.

Arthur Bahr, MIT Old English assistant professor, reads the first 12 lines in Beowulf’s original here. As this was recorded on video, with the camera directed at Bahr, the disconnect between the aural and visual presentation of a t-shirted and most definitely 21st century man serves to demonstrate how the power of listening alone can allow the reader to be more deeply absorbed than when they are confronted by sight as well as sound. Humans, at the norm, depend on eyesight as our primary means of information gathering. However, when we deploy our eyes while trying to listen, we are, indeed, less likely to hear all that we can when we stop looking.

ELECTRIC ARCHES by Eve L. Ewing | Read by Eve L. Ewing Haymarket Books | Unabridged, Haymarket Books

While many Westerners accompany any listening they do with visual stimulus (either from the same source, as in video, or through multitasking), the true power of what we can hear–and feel and think based on hearing alone–can be revealed when we don’t look. Pull up some poetry  and spend an hour listening with your eyes closed. The link immediately above offers reviews of possibilities ranging from classic to contemporary, collections of verse and novels in verse. Whatever you choose, let your ears have your full attention.

Happy National Poetry Month in Webcomics

Every Wednesday you can catch a new episode in Nonsense Poetry Comics posted by Sean Monett on Twitter @FlowerPower. On Tumblr each week’s update (often unrhymed) offers incisiveness lines with images that pack the major content points.

Since April is National Poetry Month in the US, what better way to discover webcomics? While wit is always apparent, images sometimes appear in black and white, sometimes in gorgeously hued tones. Some weeks bring multi-panel strips while others are single panel cartoons. Here’s a good place to find variety in comics communication styles as well as a moment of reflection with a smile.

Sound Learning Easier to Search

The Audio Publishers Association’s literacy promotion initiative, Sound Learning APA, has had its online presence altered just enough to make a big difference for users seeking audio literacy, and multimodal literacy content. The site includes research on listening and literacy, classroom-appropriate sample activities, and—now more evident than previously—lists of high quality titles sorted by listener interest age.

The lists are complete with annotations, sound clips, and covers. The newest list, Early Childhood audiobook suggestions, includes an essay on the pre-literacy skills audiobooks support and the list itself is subdivided for easy use by preschool teachers: there are titles by theme (e.g., music and rhyme, food, dinosaurs) each followed with activities using them with a group of under-five’s. As with the grade-level lists and the list for those who are ready for adult books, this one is deep as well as broad, with more than half a dozen thematic groups, each offering about four different titles. The range of publishers is also broad, appropriate to the site’s providers which is the audiobook trade group’s association.

Little Vampires: Just what the Doctor Ordered for All Ages

Since 2009, Rebecca Hicks and her Lunasea Studios have been publishing a child-friendly, adult-welcome strip about twice a week. Little Vampires spills out in story arcs that keep a joke going just long enough to satisfy readers who need plotting while also providing a cast of characters that is small enough to keep individual characteristics clear and broad enough to include a healthy range of personalities.Jokes range from obstreperous grand pianos to the possibilities a fresh array of crayons offer to those with wild and colorful imaginations. Critters aren’t all vampires either: there is currently a green and squid-faced fellow and then there is the Old One who has glasses and ‘stache but no visible boundary lines pooling these attributes into a traditional face; more and less hairy humanoids who sometimes could be Sasquatch. Monsterdell, home to all these fine fellows, seems more delightful than frightening, more smarty than sentimental. In short, a little dab will do you and keep you feeling young enough to grin.

The Men behind the Words

In 1974, a book by Theodore Rosengarten was published and went on to the win the National Book Award for Contemporary Affairs (a category that later became “Nonfiction”). The work itself was an oral history of a man identified as Nate Shaw (Ned Cobb), a sharecropper in Alabama who stood up against sheriffs who had come to take away a fellow sharecropper’s property. In 2000, Sean Crisden read Rosengarten’s account of Shaw’s words and recollections in the audiobook format of All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw.

In both print and audio formats, the work has received wide critical praise, and the man underneath the writing and then the performance of the written—Nate Shaw/Ned Cobb—remains alive through these interventions of other men’s voices. In effect, the fact of Nate Shaw can become fixed because his unscripted speaking was heard, recorded in written text, and now heard again through the oral performance of an informed actor. Instead of these interventions diluting the immediate and personal accounting of Mr. Shaw, they serve to extend the reach, and the permanence, of his witnessing to history.

And that, it seems, stands as a powerful demonstration of the community needed to make any one person’s experiences alive for others: the speaker, the listener, and the recorder, all of whom make possible that there be an audience beyond the immediate and singularly small original one.

Coming of Age with Literary Webcomic Superpowers

Emma T. Capps has been recognized for her droll and beautifully colored print and webcomics since she was about junior high age. Now that she’s already published in a variety of kids magazines; earned stripes for being the youngest cartoonist Dark Horse Presents (#25, 2013) had collected their on-again-off-again anthology of new work and creators; and seen her webcomic The Chapel Chronicles into print, she’s continuing to concoct lovely work that is both sly and sweet—as well as a literary bonbon eater’s delight.

Welcome to The League of Fonts. The concept of a realm in which typefaces live, from their birth (creation as fonts) until each might fall into eternal disuse, is teased out with such wit that readers will get absorbed in contemplating the properties of identity bound up in those squiggles on the page and screen we typically (!) treat simply as means to an end rather than—as Capps show us—potential ends in themselves. It’s insightful, a fun view of design, but also a potent moral analog.

A word of warning: you may find yourself not only choosing your own fonts carefully after reading Capps, but also asking them if they’d like some tea.

 

Audiobooks for Building the Most Essential Communication Skill

Audiobooks have long been used in English-speaking countries to support new language acquisition for immigrant students. Their use in English language teaching in places outside these countries is beginning to take hold, now that digitally available audiobooks allow for more accessibility in secondary and university learning situations.

This month The Journal of Language Teaching and Research has published a new and compelling study of the benefits of “Using Audiobooks for Developing Listening Comprehension among Saudi EFL Preparatory Year Students” (Manal Mohamed Khodary Mohamed, Suez Canal University). The literature review noted in its opening paragraph speaks directly to the role of listening skills in communication success:

Listening is considered the most important language skill for achieving effective communication and good academic achievement among learners. It is a highly integrative skill because it is generally the first skill which learners develop (Oxford, 1993; Vandergrift, 1999). It has been emphasized as an essential component in the Second Language Acquisition (SLA) process (Vandergrift, 2003). It has a great role in the construction of language abilities of a Foreign Language (FL) learner (Rost, 2002). It has acknowledged a great importance in FL classrooms (Richards & Renandya, 2002; Rahimi, 2012). The role and importance of listening in SLA exceeds acquiring meaning from sounds because it does not only mean recognizing the sounds but it also involves detecting, conveying and comprehending the information and it allows comprehending the world and creating social relationships among humans (White, 2006). In spite of the importance of listening, it did not get concern in language teaching for many years (Richards & Renandya, 2002; Nation & Newton, 2009). It was the least understood and the most overlooked of the four skills (Nation & Newton, 2009; Wilson, 2008). Moreover, listening is the most difficult task for learners when they begin to learn a FL and it is the most challenging skill to be developed (Berne, 2004; Vandergrift, 2007).

In addition, then, to the experimental design, methodology of analyzing its results, and the reported results, this paper offers a concise introduction to the value of aural competency and how it can be developed through audiobook listening.

End of the Year Listening

This week we take a half-step east of audiobooks per se to listen to recordings of live performances by a poet and a comedian. Both expressive forms are intended for auditory consumption and, in these selected cases, offer a shot of wry retrospective to go with current day events.

First up, Allen Ginsberg—Beat poet, comfortable performance artist, and more truthsayer than the provocateur he was accused of being—reads America. From atom bomb talk to TIME Magazine obsessing, this over-60-year-old invocation of the United States as hazard zone currently requires no historical explanation even to those a quarter of the poem’s age.

George Carlin’s “Filthy Words” routine, here as recorded in “Occupation Foole,” recorded in 1973, tracks the words involved in what became a First Amendment case arising when Carlin was arrested the previous year for speaking seven particular words aloud to an audience during his comedy performance. Last week’s news about a demand made of the Centers for Disease Control by Executive Office policy analysts included a different set of words, and yet the number of them—seven—puts a nearly biblical twist on US government suppression of vocabulary choices.

Among the delights of listening to such recordings is hearing the speaker’s actual delivery. This is a far cry from being left to read what a student wrote down as he heard Plato speak. We hear the places that matter to the speaker, even under the audience’s responding laughter. The leverage of direct access to intonation and pacing proves to be more than extra; in these two cases, the speakers’ good humor can give us some hope in light-heartedness itself.

Closeup Listening

Oral history projects organized, performed, and/or administered by archives and libraries create opportunities for audiences dispersed by geography and date to hear first person accounts of personal and public events. Typically led or encouraged by a prepared interviewer who prompts for details or expansions on the featured speaker’s memories and observations, these histories arise without a pre-written script and so arrive in fully oral vernaculars: the pitches and tones of the subject, of course, but also the cadences of unfolding oral expression, and regional and idiosyncratic word choices that have become second nature to the speaker rather than being carefully selected to impress or hide from the audience.

A variety of public and arts and culture agencies have utilized the method for acquiring and preserving elderly community members who have experienced contrasting eras, been present through public disasters, or witnessed momentous political and/or social events. Unlike the historian or the journalist, the subject providing the oral history’s content comes to the table with a personal understanding from which the account is told, providing contemporary and future audiences with direct access to how the reported events and observations were experienced. Continue reading Closeup Listening

Opening the Mind’s Eye

Reading by ear allows for a variety of other activities likely to require sight—running, driving, frosting birthday cakes—or no physical access to sight at all—after all, American audiobook publishing was born of the needs of blind readers. However, as with most things in life, there is a middle way: the opportunity for the sighted, or those with memory of the capacity to engage the world with their eyes, to use no organ other than ears and imagination to conjure the visual elements of what is being read. Eyes can be closed so that even the more or less automatic use of physical vision to track print across a page or screen comes out of play.

To read with the ears in this state of unaccompanied eye input is to give an open field to the images and colors the words and phrasings themselves evoke in the mind. This allows the full measure of works rich in such visual recreations to take center stage within, an experience that can be, in seriousness as well as punnery, heady and exhilarating.

Photo by Irina of Edward Hopper’s House at Dusk

A fine example of this involves an anthology of short stories commissioned to celebrate individual paintings by Edward Hopper. In Sunlight or In Shadow (print Pegasus Books, 2016) was a project of author and demonstrably gifted anthology editor Lawrence Block and comprises 17 short stories by the likes of Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Gail Levin, and other well known, critically acclaimed authors. Reading these tales of cravenness, fantastical mystery, and regret would be a rich experience in itself. Continue reading Opening the Mind’s Eye

Introducing The Short Story Project: A whole new way to discover, curate and appreciate short stories

Literary short stories rarely, if ever, get a chance to make an impression on their own terms, as they are usually buried in print anthologies that get lost quickly in an ever-expanding universe of published content. When short stories are given a new life in digital format—not only by extracting existing texts and migrating them online but also by translating them into several languages and adding original audio elements to each—as is the case with The Short Story Project—their impact is undeniable.

Professional reviewer Michael Rogers here sheds light on this mighty new entrant into the digital publishing and library market. NSR is pleased to publish this review and we look forward to following TSSP’s progress and development in the months and years to come.—Ed.


Stories that cross the line

Launched in 2015, The Short Story Project (TSSP) hosts a wide selection of short fiction from noted international authors. The acclaimed site—nominated for the London Book Fair’s Literary Translation Initiative Award in 2016, among others—also co-exists as an app of the same name for Androids and iOS devices. It was founded upon the belief that “reading is an experience that can make a difference. An experience that enables reflection on the human condition, inspires empathy and encourages examination; that reading is more than a pastime; it is an activity that can serve as a bridge between people and cultures, a sounding board for voices and ideas.” This belief is evident in many details, including TSSP’s tagline (Stories that Cross the Line).

TSSP endeavors to promote that philosophy through the “lively, stimulating presence of short fiction in contemporary culture,” enabling the “voices of writers from across the world be heard and resonate.” It is the creation of Iftach Alony, an Israeli-born business man with a history of successful entrepreneurial ventures. Alony is the author of two novels (2009’s Thief of Dreams, and 2012’s best-selling Spare Parts), the short story collections, Garuda’s Gaze and Plagues (of Egypt) Now (2015 and 2017, respectively), as well as the poetry collections, Let the Thorns Die (2013) and Gravity (2014). He also is the founder and coeditor of Block Magazine, a producer of several travel-films, and has served as a judge for short story competitions and other literary endeavors. Continue reading Introducing The Short Story Project: A whole new way to discover, curate and appreciate short stories

Page to Stage, with Every Attributive

For nearly a quarter century, the actors’ troupe Word for Word has been staging narrative stories and chapters, with every word of the author’s original maintained and spoken by the actors. With several different productions each season, they’ve shown how such written-for-the-page as Edith Wharton’s short story “Xingu” and the opening chapter , “The Ride,” of Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!. Contemporary authors are well represented as well, with Colm Töibín’s “Silence” on the boards this year and past performances of Dorothy Bryant, Angela Carter, Sandra Cisneros, David Handler, and Alice Munro among many others. Langston Hughes, Toni Cade Bambara, Bernard Malamud, Rudyard Kipling, and Armistead Maupin also have gone from page to stage with the every-word treatment Word for Word employs in its dramatizations.

Continue reading Page to Stage, with Every Attributive

Audio drama for education

Among real (physically present) experiences fewer and fewer children and youth meet in either entertainment or educational milieux is the live theatrical stage. While cultural doubts that widespread literacy could survive film, radio, television, and internet connectivity have been put to bed by the reality that each, turn, has increased interest in popular reading, attending plays has for many communities, become a non-experience.

Aside from the skills of actors and directors, set designers, and architects who have designed theater spaces to both contain and enhance unrelated stagings within them, the literary component of theater is unique in its genre qualifiers: the script requires dramatic interpretation by its actors and audience is an essential component to final production. That production gives the audience access to facts, feelings, and ideas carried to them from physical expression (typically physical gesture as well as human voice). In the case of audio drama, human gesture must be indicated through tone, pacing, and breathing on the actors’ parts. Continue reading Audio drama for education

Literacy Happens When….

Dated Fiction Meets Ironic Narration

Back in the mid-1960s, a magazine writer who had some working experience in law enforcement, some living experience in the nudist movement, and some floor experience in martial arts, began publishing a series of police procedural mysteries. The popularity of
author John Ball’s character Virgil Tibbs mushroomed with the excellent film adaption, in 1967, of the his first novel in the cycle (published 1965), In the Heat of the Night. Other film sequels followed and even a short-lived television show. As for Ball, he kept writing new cases for Tibbs (not the ones that appeared on screen adaptions of the main character after that first one), including six more novels and four short stories.

Ball was a white man from New York State via the Midwest; Tibbs was a black man transplanted to Pasadena, California, from the Old South. Several of the later novels in the cycle include both Asian and Asian American characters, cases related to locations in Asia, and storylines that rely on aspects of culture in Japan, Katmandu, and Singapore. An important character in the fourth novel in the series is a young woman of mixed Japanese and African American descent: she’s never met her father, who was stationed as an American soldier in her mother’s occupied postwar country. The second novel in the series is set in a nudist camp and, except for Tibbs, the main characters are white, a potentially fraught situation for investigator and suspects in mid-1960’s US, even in its California location. Ball’s storytelling addresses race, racism, racialism, and Tibbs’ own reflections on all of these matters directly, just as he does with gender. This made for provocative reading half a century ago. How does it all stand up to 21st century reception? Continue reading Literacy Happens When….

Own Voices

We Need Diverse Books (#WNDB) has gained energy and publisher awareness since its launch in 2014. The proportion of published kids’ books continues to skew below parity for those by and about people of color, varied gender and sexual identities, and specific disabilities, with the latter two broad spectra receiving less census taking and data analysis to date in the publishing world. However, inclusivity has become a publishing value, with more people now noticing that skew and more publishers and publishing gatekeepers are actively working to correct it. The efforts have been concentrated on print titles. While both titles for kids and visually read books desperately need this attention and change in publishing traditions, adult readership and readers who use their ears need increased and sustained inclusivity in publishing as well. Among these are reviewers, whose critical pronouncements on audio materials needs to include articulate and culturally competent attention to authentic inclusivity.

An essential element of moving publishing resources toward inclusiveness, again largely in the kids print market, is awareness of own voices, which has been building broader social media consciousness with the #OwnVoices hashtag. This effort draws attention to the need for justice in publishing: narratives from and about marginalized experiences and characters from authentic sources should be sought and supported. Those who live beyond and beside the empowered culture’s contours are the ones whose voices need to be heard. Inclusivity is necessary to all of us if we are to inhabit a cultural home that has windows, mirrors, and doors. Continue reading Own Voices

Time travel with the ancient aural art

Among the literary arts, poetry almost always needs oral performance to bring even the solitary reader close to the text. In efforts to record poetry, too its authors almost always are the best choices for performing their own works. This week, take a poetry break and learn about lives and dreams from the mouths of the poets giving their literary art immediacy, whether you are generations away or remember seeing their lines in print.

Amiri Baraka read at the Maryland Institute College of Art’s Decker Library, 14 September 1992, an occasion and performance preserved in its entirety. The MICA Archives include more than 100 readings and lectures by poets and artists. Many of the recordings here were made at local performances in Decker Library, including this 1973 reading by Allen Ginsberg. Listening to Baraka and Ginsberg across a quarter- and nearly a half-century offers something more compelling than nostalgia: these poets committed vestiges of their immediate social and political contexts to sounds that resonate with listeners in the here and now.

Recording of William Carlos Williams are preserved at the University of Pennsylvania’s PennSound Center. These tiny, literally seconds-long audios offer him reading his “The Red Wheelbarrow,” on three different occasions, spanning 1942 to 1952. One poet, one poem, and three different pacings give listeners the opportunity to appreciate how each time we express ourselves, the expression is just a bit different, perhaps easier—or more difficult—for the listener to access. PennSound also contains a treasure trove of Adrienne Rich reading her works on a great number of occasions, including this 1988 poem, “Divisions of Labor,” that speaks of matters that continue to be trenchant nearly 30 years on. Also available at PennSound, Francisco X. Alarcón’s “Letter to America”, published first in 1991, is indeed an anthem for today, both in word and performance. Continue reading Time travel with the ancient aural art

The power of free choice in literacy acquisition–kids’ edition

With the explosion of digital audiobook publishing, dedicated listeners now exercise a wide range of free choices for their literate ears: diverse genres, classics, backlist sleepers, hot-off-the-press new titles. There are other choices they can make now, too: performances by single narrators, full cast performances, audiobooks enhanced with musical beds or realistic sound effects, short-form works and those that require more than 40 hours of submersion. The choices literate listeners make are shaped by both wide-ranging experiences with various options and awareness of which of these holds the most satisfaction in their personal consumption. These two shaping mechanisms function iteratively to further develop listening taste. And every choice made regarding listening taste deepens the listener’s skills and comes courtesy of the freedom to choose.

Varieties of tea
Range Beverage Choice Tea Exotic

In contrast to all these benefits of free choice, children new to literate listening come up against forces of external power over their potential to gain independent skills. For school children in marginally progressive classrooms, this typically takes the form of adult insistence that a child listening to an audiobook must have a print paper or ebook copy in hand. Many American schools, still subscribing to the benighted Accelerated Reading cult, keep any kind of literacy freedom bound to prescribed levelling codes and a schedule of completion over immersion time. Continue reading The power of free choice in literacy acquisition–kids’ edition

Renewing literacy through sustained listening

Putting aside (although hardly forgetting) concerns with truly universal access to audiobooks for this post, let’s consider how listening can build engaged literacy. As the Walrus article ALA made sure to circulate broadly last week argues, literacy is as much endangered by lack of interest on the parts of those with the skills as other human epochs have experienced its fragility through lack of the skills themselves.

True literacy, when it comes to experiencing the world- and empathy-expanding powers of lengthy, carefully crafted narratives (that is, books) requires the reader to maintain connection with what the author has to say and how the author says it to a vanishing point between the book and its reader. Having the skills to decode letters, words, phrases, and passages is akin to amassing the bricks, mortar, glass, and roof shingles needed to build a house: unless you can stick with the efforts to reconstruct this pile of ingredients by following the author-supplied blueprint, you’re left with a lot full of debris or a haphazard stack that offers no fit dwelling place. On the other hand, once you’ve followed the blueprint, you then have a staging point (a house) from which you can go forth with the experience of building and dwelling in it. Continue reading Renewing literacy through sustained listening

Access to literacy connection: Material technology still needed

With the exception of oral storytelling, every way we share literature, published information, and literacy experiences requires some kind of material tool. From clay tablets to paperbacks, cinema screens to computer screens, live theater stages to the mobiles on which apps can reach audio files, we need to control an object of technology (or technologies) in order to get narrative access. Each newly rising literacy experience technology bridge has been met by naysayers, unwilling to give up the old—tried and true, in their estimation—material access point for something newer, less cumbersome and, often, more difficult for the naysayer accustomed to another sort of technology, to use at the start.

The reality, of course, is that everything we do as individuals is more difficult when we first try it, from dressing ourselves to negotiating a journey beyond our home. And we learn to achieve some level of technical competency because others before us have achieved competency that, through repeated use has attained popular assimilation: our general culture accepts clothing and travel outside as normative reliances on material objects. The same has become true for literacy throughout many world cultures. Literacy’s spread, in fact, depended on material things—manuscripts that preserved words and concepts developed by earlier authors and then printed books that made the transmission of scripted literature available to copious duplication (and thus wider distribution). Culturally, although of course never universally as individuals, we have achieved literacy, using yesterday’s tools. Continue reading Access to literacy connection: Material technology still needed