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.
Besides engaging with what authors and performers have created through audiobooks, the sound of storytelling extends to creating and listening to family stories, neighborhood stories, captured memories of unwritten, and otherwise unscripted, events, and conversations. The work of StoryCorps addresses this by providing both structure for and preservation of such recordings. Recordings made in StoryCorps booths, which pop up around the country on well publicized schedules, are accepted by the Library of Congress as part of the American archives of cultural and popular history. StoryCorps has won a variety of humanities distinctions, including the Peabody Award (2007).
For several years, StoryCorps has been promoting The Great Thanksgiving Listen, a guided opportunity for those gathered with multiple generations to celebrate the holiday. With the goal of creating “a culture of listening,” this effort points directly to the power of listening in communication, intergenerational honor, and understanding. Directions are specific, simple to follow, and require virtually nothing to attain satisfying results. The event is suggested for families, classes of all ages, and neighborhood gathering places. Continue reading StoryCorps and the Great Thanksgiving Listen→
This is the high season for literary award announcements, from the international Nobel Laureate to the Mystery Writers of America’s Anthony Awards. In between come plaudits for the best writing in everything from investigative journalismto lifetime achievement in military literature. Many such award winners have had previous titles recorded as audiobooks; some have the winning title already available in audio format; a few will remain unrecorded, at least in the foreseeable future.
Does a satisfying, literary award-winning book automatically translate into a great listen? This is like asking whether a fantastic cake recipe can be made into delightful cookies. Maybe. Sometimes. It depends on factors that have nothing to do with the print work—the quality of the narrators’ performance, sound engineering care—and a few that do, in fact, connect to what the book is, how the author treats both language and prosody, and whether the content makes sense aloud. Continue reading Literary Awards Season Disambiguates Writing from Performing→
The Audio Publishers Association coordinates a literacy initiative, Sound Learning APA, to collect and disseminate research and guidance in support of multimodal literacy. The initiative is run by volunteers with professional backgrounds in teaching, library service, and audiobook distribution and publishing. While the first years of Sound Learning efforts concentrated on collecting and organizing bibliographies and audiographies and publicizing their availability, with other supportive news, through Twitter and Facebook, a new phase is now underway.
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.
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→
An underutilized hashtag on Twitter points up the books readers wish would migrate into listening format. Some are new titles, many are never-bestsellers that can still be found readily in current print editions, several tagged posts point up the dearth of titles representing affinity groups. Here’s a sampler of what and why readers want to push against the boundaries of audiobook publishing’s current offerings.
#audiobookwish Practice inclusivity in romance, both in print and in audio editions
While it came as no surprise to romance writers of color–nor to many readers of color as well as some who are white–last week’s publication of the Ripped Bodice bookstore’s report “The State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing, 2016” confirms that the disparity between both writer demographics and publishing attainment is wide. In fact, the romance genre also relies on small publishers to bring out any titles featuring romantic characters who are anywhere in the LGBTQIA family as well. Breaking down that print availability even further, we find an audiobook world in which virtually everyone is white and straight—unless it’s a teen title (both It’s Not Like It’s a Secret and If I Was Your Girl went to audio quickly, for example, and various youth award winning print titles are made into audiobooks ahead of the literary awards they earn). Continue reading #audiobookwish X 4→
Some years ago, I was impressed by a speaker at a youth enrichment services providers roundtable who came from a vocational training background and currently worked in publishing house dealing mostly with career preparation materials. The materials she shared included, surprisingly to most of us gathered, board books for toddlers as well as interactive books for older children. These were not the “When I grow up, I want to be a firefighter” flavor: instead, they exposed kids to the actual doing of things that could eventually engage their interests in jobs beyond the Top 10 every high school student recognizes as the likely “only” options.*
A few industries are good—usually at the behest of union pressure—about exposing the fact of certain jobs existing. Think about the rolling credits after a movie. While such denominating for public view doesn’t explain what exactly the key grip or best boy does functionally, the job titles are there. And there are jobs called out in the credits as well that make intuitive sense while not, more than likely, getting much air time when the conversation turns to “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Once it’s noted as a possibility, however, costume designer strikes a chord that could turn into a wholly satisfying career. Continue reading Publishing and bibliographic jobs below the radar→
The not-quite-well-named Banned Books Week is upon us again, with the annual ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom’s collection of books most frequently named in community-level challenges to fittedness for someone other than the complainant and their own children to read. This year’s list has the typical earmarks of negativity aimed at books that speak to kids at those scary ages when they are demonstrating a new level of independence from parental control: the newly minted kindergartener, the middle schooler entering adolescence, the not-quite-out-of-the-house teen who can get out and about readily without parental assist. The remainder of the Top 10 Troublemakers speaks to the American shadow disposition of Puritanism: the frank recognition of sexual behaviors, the use of proscribed language, and authorship by someone later charged with crimes.
Calling out issues of intellectual freedom regarding specifically audiobook content has, at the level of national attention, been rooted in content that remains identical between print and spoken formats, with challengers who are cited objecting to the same works in audiobook as in print and for the same reasons. Five years ago, Professor Teri LeSesne predicted the likelihood of growth in the audiobook challenge industry, again noting works in trouble due to what the authors wrote, not to hearing-specific aspect of the written. As more audiobooks are produced and available, and with audiobook publishing for children and youth—the primary targets of books that meet community challenges—reflecting new and critically reviewed authors and print works, it becomes increasingly easy to find audiobook editions of titles on the list of troublemaking titles. Continue reading Hearing the Unacceptable→
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.
With the new K-12 school year under way or on the verge, American elementary and middle school administrators are focused on “proving” that the kids in their districts are learning or “know” how to read. Several corporate entrepreneurs are on board to continue to make money through mass, data-driven program packages that administrators buy as a demonstration that care is being taken to “prove” kids are able to think about what they read. Lexile® leveling and Renaissance’s Accelerated Reading programs are probably the ones most commonly recognized both by families and library staff who are regularly asked to find books that respond to company profiles created of their students.
With the new American school year either poised to open or already entering its fifth or sixth day (depending on local practices), many classrooms are hearing the voice of just one of the room’s occupants. Teachers need to manage both their students’ learning opportunities and their interactive behaviors and, most typically, this is achieved in the 21st century by word of mouth: orally delivered directions, admonitions, and that warning shot of calling out a particular student by name.
Or calling out some syllables that the teacher is has decided suits the need for a name as well as does the actual name of the student. In the multilingual, multiethnic classrooms—and even in the comparatively homogenous one in which not everyone bears a three- to five-letter moniker shared by generations of English speakers—the expert in what to call the students isn’t the teacher. The wise would-be classroom manager simply asks. And then listens to what the student with eleven syllables and only four consonants pronounces.
Just as authored, edited, and mass produced books comprise only one segment of the to-be-read universe, audiobooks are not alone in what we can read by ear. We’ve long tuned into broadcast events—live sports, journalists’ reports, opinions and performances—and we negotiate our daily public lives as much by attending to ambient aural messages as to signs and written directions.
With digital preservation and dissemination broadening its capacious notice of aural resources, there is a growing wealth of sound archives that carry “reader” content. The Quietus (http://thequietus.com) offers a fine point of entry into this world of expressive sounds. Earlier this month, the site launched an interactive archives of contemporary Protest Sound. Take a journey on your own, or include this in lower and upper division political science course curricula. Protest & Politics (http://citiesandmemory.com/protest/) gives access to international expressions of government dissent, with the ability to key sound to geography, and a tutorial on different forms of protest. Specific tracks recorded at protest events vary in length and most are long enough to give listeners contextual sounds as a bed for the intentional messaging. Continue reading Expressions, Impressions→
Humor is a powerful force that can be put to work in advancing understanding. Whether it’s the witty raconteur of a math professor who knows how to create enlightenment through lighthearted comparisons or the final bridge from one’s native language to arriving at a sense of full comfort in an acquired one, the opportunity to laugh provides heavy lifting of external information to internal grasp.
Of course, both humor and tastes in humor vary widely, expanding from visual slapstick to arch punning. The sorts that rely on transmission through language make readily available material for listening readers in search of learning as well as casual entertainment. To be successful on either or both counts, such audiobooks rely heavily on both careful writing and fine acting. Evident humor must expand subject comprehension rather than making it obscure or distasteful to those who might be put off by extreme argot or shocking imagery; while these can themselves be put to good entertainment services, they can also raise defenses among many listeners and thus make learning unlikely. Continue reading Laughing to Learn→
Mark Schatzker’s popular science book, The Dorito Effect (audiobook edition read by Chris Patton for Dreamscape Media, 2015) delves into the industrial hijacking of our concepts of natural flavors. This has been the order of the modern American food chain in an effort to expedite a shorter cycle of both plant and animal life from birth to table, increase shelf life of prepared foodstuffs, and tease taste buds with dramatic sensations that encourage more snacking. In short, the modern favor cupboard relies on predictability in exposure: every bag of salt and vinegar crisps will offer uniform tang and crunch. And that disposition isn’t reserved only for the foods our bodies both need and crave. We’ve put too many minds on market-assured nutrient replacement literacy diets as well.
Instead of encouraging true experimentation with narratives written by artists and researchers for the joy and engagement of discovery, we line up the fortified tan-tinted bread of leveled readers and roll our eyes if a reading child develops a prurient taste for stories in which the juvenile characters don’t show respect for their fictional parents or prefer listening to page-gazing. In short, the acquisition of literacy too frequently devolves into measuring how many 2-ounce bags of cheese powder-flavored chips a new reader can hack with a single bottle of orange-essence-scented fizzy water. This is truly junk reading; escapism called junk reading, on the other hand, might just as often be venison or creek-caught crawdads swallowed illicitly but to the tune of collecting really-o, truly-o unfarmed protein. Continue reading The Natural Listening Literacy Diet→
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→
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→
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→
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→
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.
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→
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.  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→
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