Reading by Ear: A superb collection of articles on audiobooks, audio literacy, and the art of listening

A few months ago, NSR launched the Reading by Ear column, written by audiobook and audio literacy authority, librarian Francisca Goldsmith. The column discusses 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. Her contribution to No Shelf Required is immense and we are grateful to have her on board.

Reading by Ear runs each Monday and today (Friday) we take the time to honor Francisca’s contribution thusfar and have singled out some of the posts in the column that we recommend to all working with audiobooks and all interested in the nature of audio literacy and the art of listening.—Ed.

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 

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

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 

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

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 

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

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.

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

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

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 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

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

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