#GivingThanks for Digital Audiobooks

In the opening scene of the new and Sacramento-hatred-drenched movie Lady Bird, the title character and her mother are listening to the closing 30 seconds or so of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath while driving on an August hot highway. They each shed a tear as the audiobook ends and then teenaged Lady Bird pops the cassette—the final of about 20—from the car player and back into its rigid, made-to-crack plastic shell. It’s 2002 and this is how most listeners handle audiobooks.

There were more elemental passages of truth-telling—and a good deal of well handled humor and pathos—throughout the remaining 90 minutes of the movie. That veracity-in-audiobook-incarnation, however, seems worth a moment of thanks on its own. The thanks is for time having passed and technology having developed beyond the 2002 watermark when:

  • 20 pieces—plus box!—were needed to hear a full-length classic like Steinbeck’s
  • Both audiobook parts and containing shell were breakable in about half a dozen (and easy) ways
  • The whole mess cost upwards of $100 a copy, not only putting it beyond many individuals’ budgets but a daunting reality for library budgets…
  • …especially as one missing or unfixable cassette meant replacement fees to boot

Then there are all the sound issues with audiobooks on cassettes of the bygone age: this listener is grateful for the cessation of the hisses, wobbling voiced warps, and dust flecks that led to full on stop of the performance’s flow.

From the library’s side, there were the ages and rank boredom of checking each of those plastic shells to count whether all the many pieces had been returned—and that they were indeed the right pieces. There was the follow up on disappointed borrowers who discovered that someone else previously had left one or more cassettes in the sun, or soiled it with motor oiled hands. And there was the management of demands from would-be listeners who had to be notified that, although the audiobook they wanted had been returned, it would be six weeks, six months, never, before the missing parts were acquired and the title made whole again. And there was the budget. How big can a collection as fragile as this grow when each title and each copy in it costs today’s equivalent of $140+?

So, thank you, Lady Bird, for that reminder of a small, but concrete, reason for a bit of gratitude this weend.