The Sound of Literature: The Commercialization of the Audiobook

audio-stockJune is national Audiobook month, and as such let’s take a brief look at the history of the format. Though many of the earliest recordings were speeches and excerpts from stories, the first full audiobooks, or talking books as they are sometimes known,  were pressed and made available in the early 1930s as an effort to make literature more accessible to the blind. Some of the earliest test pressings were of Helen Keller’s Midstream and Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven. As we know today, audiobooks have become a popular and relaxing way to engage in reading without cracking open a book and can make a long car ride a little less dull.

vonnegut imgOne of the leading pioneers in the talking book industry was Caedmon records. Prior to the 1950s most talking book efforts were undertaken by small organizations responding to the need from soldiers who’d lost eyesight in World War I and II. Typically founded by womens’ auxiliary groups, they often recorded everything in house, pressed the records and mailed them out themselves. Caedmon, founded in 1952 by two women fresh out of college, took advantage of the recent innovation of the 12-inch LP record to make and package longer works for commercial production.

One of their first releases was Dylan Thomas reciting his own poetry, which made the 2008 list of the National Registry of Historic Recordings for being a seminal work in the commercialization of audiobooks. Caedmon also released a number of childrens’ storytelling recordings like Boris Karloff reading the “Three Little Pigs,” and more scandalous volumes like the works of french writer, Jean Genet.

The Marr Sound archive holds a substantial number of Caedmon releases including many works of William Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, collections of Childrens’ stories, original readings of passages from Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce–in case you’re up for a Bloomsday celebration on the 16th–and countless other excerpts and full-length works of literature. The label was critical in reaching a broad audience of listeners with professional voices and re-released nearly obscure recordings (such as the Joyce) to bring the sound of literature to the masses. It shaped the way the American public would come to love and voraciously consume audiobooks today. Audiobooks have evolved with audio formats to suit the needs of the public: 12-inch LP sets, soft-cased cassette sets, CDs, the more recent isolated mp3 Playaways, and uninterrupted mp3 download services (no changing or flipping tapes or discs!).