Expressions, Impressions

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 ( 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 ( 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.

In addition to political breaking news events, all manner of archived spoken discourse makes for heady listening: recorded poetry, oral histories, endangered indigenous languages, witness accounts, and comedy performances are among the possibilities. Pair, from the American Memory Project at the Library of Congress, Voices from the Dust Bowl ( with Karen Hesse’s novel in verse Out of the Dust, read by Marika Mashburn for Listening Library (2008). Follow up Terry Banies and Darryl Cooke’s StoryCorps recording of “What It Is that People Who have Never Been Incarcerated Before Don’t Get” ( with the full cast performance of Prison Noir’s short story collection (Akashic Books/Audible Studios, 2014). Depending on personal interests and tastes, there are archives of sermons, professionally delivered podcasts on child raising, and interviews with scientists and artists that can increase listener understanding of the motivations underlying pursuit of these disciplines.

The valuable sound archives project includes careful curation as well as well defined subject matter. Just as every pamphlet and every podcast isn’t inspired or inspiring, not every preserved human oral expression warrants broad interest. And that brings us back to how literate listening isn’t synonymous with just listening: there is an essential conceptual structure that needs to be recognized (and needs to be present to be recognized!) and details that clothe that structure in a unique and engaging way that invite the listener to understand, empathize, or both.