“Can a Book Talk?”
This presentation takes up an unresolved question in the history of recorded literature: is a talking book still a book? In 1934, the United States Library of Congress established the world’s first talking book library in order to provide reading material for war-blinded soldiers and blind civilians. The Bible, Shakespeare, and best-selling novels were read aloud by professional actors on a set of long-playing phonograph records. The talking book represented the most significant advance in blind literacy since the invention of Braille. Yet, at the same time, it raised a profound set of questions about the nature of reading. Hence, this talk traces a series of controversies that arose over the appropriate way to narrate a talking book. Audiences faced a choice between a deliberately understated style that privileged the printed book and a theatrical style that took full advantage of the record’s sound. Such disputes call into question the legitimacy of reading practices among people with visual disabilities and, ultimately, what it means for anyone to read a book.