Reading by Ear

Reading by Ear is a series of articles by librarian Francisca Goldsmith discussing audiobooks as a medium through which contemporary readers are invited to explore literary culture, performance arts, and multimodal literacy capacity building. In her thought-provoking, scholarly yet accessible writing, Francisca addresses why audiobook listening expands, rather than derails, our access to literature and the written word. She also takes on the issue of prescribing audiobooks as a ‘print reading’ support versus listening to audiobooks as a way to build information and aesthetic experiences and critical thinking about auditory experiences in their own right.

Francisca has been working in libraries for many years. Her professional background includes services and collections for teens in public and school libraries, for New Americans, and providing reference services and managing collections for adults and teens in public and academic libraries. She has held positions in Collection Management and in Public Services in libraries in the US and Canada. Since 2000, she has provided training through a variety of public and private agencies for library staff. The author of six professional books and contributor to several more, she now works with the Audio Publishers Association’s Sound Learning literacy project and AudioFile Magazine, in addition to other clients.

Audiobook Reviewing in Communities of Affinity

Among readers and collection developers both, there is a contemporary argument ongoing focused on how criticism—not in the popular meaning of negativity but in the academic sense of analytical—belongs or is even necessary to potential readers. With fiction, literary as well as genres written for quick consumption, much trust seems to be placed in large publishing houses’ editorial and marketing departments identifying need-to-read titles. That this might be healthy in the longterm cultural accretion diet seems debatable: small, less moneyed voices are silenced; reading interests and tastes that hue away from the demographics of those editorial teams; reviewers—both professional and amateur—find plenty to keep them busy in the main hall without exploring the potentially better furnished chambers.

It’s a bit like the contemporary American food chain: more than enough to stave off hunger and even maintain energy and general health, albeit at the expense of taste, flexibility, and longterm threats to wellbeing of both ourselves and the planet. This isn’t a screed calling for elite snobbery among reviewers (or publishers); it is a call to amateur and professional reviewers alike to consider more deeply than simply tendering personal feelings about the reading they’ve consumed. Audiobook reviews long on blurbifying the print book’s reviews, or recapitulating the narrative content, perhaps with a one-line aside deeming the narration “great” or “not so good” aren’t audiobook reviews really. Saying they are simply doesn’t make them so. Continue reading Audiobook Reviewing in Communities of Affinity

Oral History, Aural Culture

Audiobooks offer access to the distant history of human artistic expression through technology, an ironic fact that flies in the face of print purists. Before ebooks, there were print books, and before that manuscripts, tablets…and oral tradition. Audiobooks can give us back that visceral discovery of a bigger culture beyond our family’s home and our neighbors’ conversations that oral storytelling first provided.

To regain the experience of pre-literate narrative, not any performance available in recording will do. Here, the issues of pacing and tone need to be sensitive to delivering a work as though the audience cannot encounter it in print. Given the reality that such audios, made now, offer the original works in new languages (modern English, for example!), care to emulate storytelling rather than book-reading is required to keep the listener engaged as much as possible as would audiences of millennia back. Continue reading Oral History, Aural Culture

Able Listening

Literature from every age has reflected fact and fantasy about a variety of human conditions named, in contemporary terms, disabilities. Chief among these across genres as well as time are emotional and intellectual disorders ranging from the madness in the sailors evoked by the Sirens’ song (Homer) through the curtailed capacity of Lennie Small (John Steinbeck) to the currently news-grabbing Thirteen Reasons Why (Jay Asher). Physical incapacities that inhibit movement are also pan-historical narrative staples: the Mali epic of Sundiata, Shakespeare’s Richard III, and the quintessentially Victorian Little Lame Prince (Dinah Craik) are but three extraordinarily tall trees in a forest of works where character movements are disabled.

Some recent youth fiction in which characters live with blindness, communication-inhibiting stuttering, and mutism have been recorded with care and talent that offer listeners more than the distinctive clarity each author evokes in these particularly challenged characters. Because listeners meet these worlds with ears instead of eyes, the language used to create and sustain storytelling in which such capacity differences is realized absorbs the listening reader in an even richer experience: the power of words, and of speaking, ascends to a personal experience with the characters’ worlds. Continue reading Able Listening

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

Narrating from personal experience

Good audiobook narrators are trained actors who have developed deep skills in voice and breath management. In many cases, they, along with professional directors, bring interpretation to texts with minimal personal contact with their authors as people. This year, the Odyssey Award, an American Library Association’s honor for best audiobook production for the youth audience, feted titles in which that general rule of thumb happened to not be the case.

Among the three Honor audiobooks, Jason Reynolds’ Ghost (Simon & Schuster), we heard from both author and narrator Guy Lockard, reached the ear from the page via the talents of Reynolds’ friend of 20 years. As Lockard told it from the celebration podium, these two “sat on the same couch, eating tunafish sandwiches” and listening to community members holding forth around them. Lockard knows Reynolds’ characters as thoroughly as Reynolds. The result is an audiobook experience that is thoroughly true to the feelings of the author’s word choices, phrasings, and interpretation of experience.

The Odyssey Award this year went to a production that wasn’t quite as uniquely personal. However, Anna and the Swallow Man (Listening Library) made friends of former strangers author Gavriel Savit and actor Allan Corduner, two generations of men whose own ancestors lived some of the experiences on which this story hinges. This shared community memory of the Holocaust through a child’s interpretive capacity informs both writer and narrator at an innate level where no explanation is needed from one to other for a full listening experience to come to being.

There are two other Honor titles in this year’s Odyssey Award season, each of which contributes an unusual performance experience based on the parameters of the author’s storytelling. Dream On, Amber, by Emma Shevah and performed by Laura Kirman (Recorded Books) involves the need for the narrator to speak as family members whose linguistic heritages include Italian, Japanese, and 21st century American English Tween. Nimona, a graphic novel by Noelle Stevenson, was produced by a full cast—and appropriate sound effects (Harper Audio) to move an original format that relies on visual content as well as verbal from page to ear.

All in all, this year’s Odyssey seems to be a celebration of relationships as much as production skill sets. And, as ever, every title makes grand reading by ear.

Listening to writers, writing to be heard

Human language involves a plethora of two-way avenues: we listen to others, we speak to be heard; we read language documented in writing and write our own language for briefer or longer preservation. Two-way streets can hold one-way traffic so we don’t create expressed language with the requirement of an audience. We couldn’t, however, listen to others or read their expressions before those others put together the words we meet with ears and eyes. We also speak from what we’ve read, listen to once-written—and never-written—texts. It’s a glorious interchange in which we develop and exercise so many skills that blend and fold and emerge from each other.

The Portable Stories project offers writers a path for reaching original publication in professionally performed audio. To date it’s gone through one full cycle from short story theme announcement, to writing contest submissions and judging, through casting and recording the winner. The second cycle’s writing portion closed last month and announcement of the winning text happens next month. Then it’s on to recording and producing that audio short story, along with the next theme announcement. Continue reading Listening to writers, writing to be heard

Voices for Canada

Canada, in spite of its southern neighbor’s too frequent assumptions, is not a cultural outpost of US art, literary, and literacy practices. Canadians create and take pride in the richness of Canadian books, authors, and artists. When it comes to identifying, collecting, and promoting Canadian authors, publishers, librarians, and journalists engage in ongoing projects to discover and make discoverable, through meta-tagging, explicit selection and deselection curation rules, and title page verso reference to national and provincial agencies dedicated to the promotion of books.

Comparisons between 2014 and 2015 surveys of adult audiobook listeners in Canada show that the format has gained solid traction and an increasingly invested listening audience. [1] Canadian listening readers, like their counterparts in the US and other countries, continue to enjoy increasing numbers of titles from which to select. However, as with book publication, the search for Canadian content indicates greater potential than current actuality. And with audiobooks, the product has several points at which its Canadianess—or lack thereof—can be judged: author, audiobook publishing company, and narrator talent. Continue reading Voices for Canada

The Audies Turn 22

Last week the 22nd year of Audie Award celebrations took place, an occasion in which the audiobook industry recognizes the best and brightest of a year’s worth of production. Back in 1996, the initial event feted works in 15 categories, six of which were three sets of pairings differentiating between abridged and unabridged efforts. The short lists of finalists were…short: three works in each of 13 categories and only the ultimate winners in the other two. Those two, with their single callout each, represented the abridged and unabridged “Internet listeners” choices.

In 1996, the Audio Publishers Association, the award-granting body for the Audies, didn’t even leave an Internet footprint. The Internet Archive Wayback Machine retains the first capture of APA’s online presence as April 1997. Continue reading The Audies Turn 22

Reviewing in the Audio Literacy Ecosystem

How Review Resources Limit Awareness

While popularly quoted statistics point to the burgeoning of both audiobook production and audiobook audience size, trying to drill down to the faces behind the numbers proves difficult. The broad outlines offer silhouettes: gender segmentation, age cohort spread, listening locations, and educational attainment. Disseminated reports on race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, and unsatisfied areas of content interest among audiobook listeners would boost efficacy of training reviewers to be as responsive to audience listening needs and wants as those reviewers are becoming more facile with technical aspects of audio publishing industry capacity and successes.

Where audiobook collections were once the purview of libraries, consumer-facing businesses for obtaining downloadable audiobooks offer subscription plans to individuals with even modest discretionary income. Where most listeners—whether a borrower making use of their library’s online audiobook vendor package or a direct subscriber to a consumer service—hear about audiobooks that may pique their interest is online, and by accessing a stew of commercial sites, personal blogs, a limited number of databases, and the equally small number of professional review journals that include audiobook coverage. This blend of informational access to audiobook publishing necessarily skews awareness of potential listening choices. The personal blogs, some of which contain fine critical writing, are typically limited to the bloggers’ personal listening interests in terms of genres, and even narrators. Database entries for audiobook advisory work necessarily rely on published reviews, and therefore are offering a new means of review discovery rather than additional review angles or title coverage. And the journals where critical audiobook reviews appear work with their own editorial policies and the cultural limitations of their reviewer stable. Continue reading Reviewing in the Audio Literacy Ecosystem

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….

When Kids Listen Again and Again

Anyone who has shared books with a child aged between two and four has probably experienced the “read it again” syndrome. You just read it aloud—three times in one go  yesterday—and now it’s being thrust at you for another round, which will be followed immediately by a plea to read it another time right now, please. Of course, this kind of instant repeat wish didn’t spring to human evolution with the invention of the printing press or popular literacy; narrative “bathing” comes with maturing language acquisition whether it’s tell-me-that-story-again, recite-that-poem, or read it again.

Verbal repetition when a child is relatively new to language, is both exciting and soothing.[1]  Every repetition of the same text aloud provides the joy of recognition spiced with the curiously pleasant realization that some tiny, previously unheard nuance now strikes consciousness as well as the ear. Lindsay Patterson wrote last month of research conducted regarding podcasts for kids that opened up new insights on the attraction of repetitive listening by young children.[2] The sample surveyed giving rise to this preliminary research was small and details about it, so far, don’t include socioeconomic, gender, or ethnic demographic reference points. However, having a starting point is better than having none to push forward exploration of the power of listening to the development of children’s capacity to internalize information provided through language. Continue reading When Kids Listen Again and Again

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

Show a teen how to build a summer listening library

This Thursday heralds opening day for the 8th season of AudiobookSYNC Audiobooks for Teens. Here’s an opportunity to acquire 32 audiobooks for free and to keep for personal use (not for library collections). All comers are granted each week’s pair of free audiobooks, while the program selections target middle and high school aged teens. Last year, the program provided more than 170,000 free audiobook downloads of 30 titles.

What it is: AudiobookSYNC aims to highlight listening as a means to reading both high teen-interest titles and titles either assigned for summer reading or likely to require student attention for curriculum support. The audiobook review magazine AudioFile, hosts the annual program, uses the OverDrive app and computer software for distribution, and acquires its titles through donations from more than a dozen audiobook publishers, including the big guys like Penguin Random House and Recorded Books, and smaller houses like L.A. Theatre Works, Ideal Audiobooks, and Naxos AudioBooks. Continue reading Show a teen how to build a summer listening library

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

Speeding kills

Ten days ago Quartz published a piece associating America’s “unhealthy obsession with productivity with the rise in audiobook publishing and market popularity. The article puts forward relatively ancient survey data, claiming that the 2006 Audio Publishers Association’s consumer survey is the latest. It’s not and a very quick search of the same site the author used to locate this report leads to 2012 survey results, posted in 2013, and a n online search that takes all of one minute longer leads directly to the Edison Research audiobook consumer research report of 2016.

That not-minor quibble aside, the Quartz writer goes on to characterize audiobook readers as “book lovers in a hurry” and notes the availability of proprietary technologies that “speed listen,” altering the audiobook’s playback by eliminating intentional pauses in the performance’s recording and even tripling the speed of the cadences chosen by narrators and directors. At this point, the writer is no longer really discussing audiobook listening; instead, the subject is the avoidance of listening, and, thereby, the avoidance of actually falling into the audiobook. Continue reading Speeding kills

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

Access to digital literacy increases potential for civic inclusion

Earlier this month, the UK government published a policy paper on “Digital Skills and Inclusion: Giving everyone access to the digital skills they need” that, in keeping with the authors’ purpose, focused on digital skill relevance to employability. Reading it from the perspective of a Stateside librarian committed to building and supporting means for transliteracy development, I see potential application to the need to educate both sides of the digital divide regarding the relevance of critical listening to critical thinking, the availability of resources to build critical listening skills, and, through access to digital audio, the tools to create listening capacity that opens channels of both understanding and empathy for civic participation to become more fully realized.

Transliteracy acknowledges that our human capacity to learn from and share informational and literary content cannot be limited to visual reading of text. Journalism has long left behind the limitation of print to transmit information through still and moving photography, spoken word broadcasts and podcasts, and interactive (social) platforms. Transliteracy describes the “ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks.” The end sought through the means of transliteracy exercise, however, is to build the inclusive social and civic connections described in the UK paper on Digital Skills and Inclusion (cited above).

Attentive listening is no more a passive condition than is purposeful sight reading. We gain copious details by listening to content that escape us when seeing a text-based presentation, especially if we are either (1) a sight reader lacking fluency and thus stopped by confusion about punctuation or sentences with multiple dependent and independent clauses; or (2) an overly confident and actually lazy sight reader eager to achieve the finish line and prone to glossing past complex passages on the way to doing so.  A written passage may take several paragraphs to create, through text alone, those images and speeches and thoughts and explanations needed to present a single, momentary instant or insight. (Sequential art[ii], of course, can achieve this more efficiently). Visual performance arts, in addition to the copious acting skills of those on screen or stage, make use of scenery and costuming to impart information beyond the physical actions and words exchanged. Continue reading Access to digital literacy increases potential for civic inclusion

The Freedom to Read–and Listen

Our culture seems to grow increasingly attentive to monitoring youthful family members’ personal lives—baby monitors set to eavesdrop on the napping 4-year-old who has no incipient medical issues to warrant vigilance; scheduling every free chunk of time with organized activities to eliminate those precious moments of freedom and independent pursuits; parental insistence in maintaining control over teens’ school assignments. Library ethics acknowledge parental rights to monitor their own children’s access to information; parents who choose to exercise that right should be informed about the diminishing effects this has on human development as children (hopefully) mature into their own individuals.

We do have the freedom regardless of  age to expose ourselves to information and literary experiences. We do not–and should not–have to accept everything we read, hear, or may be assigned to consider. We all do, however, have the right to give our own permission to what we ourselves care to consider through reading and through listening. It is through that exposure that we learn for ourselves what to accept, or reject, in the way of ideas. Continue reading The Freedom to Read–and Listen