1/29/23 Audiobooks

My first experience with an audiobook was in elementary school.

I had been labeled EI–Emotionally Impaired–in Third Grade. This was, according to the documentation, because I had thrown a dictionary at another student.

I don’t remember that specific incident, but I do remember throwing a desk at the teacher. This was the teacher that went on medical leave shortly thereafter, and the probably true rumor was that it was related to mental health.

She decided to retire, so I saw her one more time, at the end of the year, at a party thrown at her house. I remember it being on the waterfront, which might be true since these events happened on Marine City, Michigan, which is pretty much all waterfront.

I also remember a girl being furious at me for daring to attend the party because it was my fault her beloved teacher had had to leave part of the way through the school year, and I figure that may well have been the same girl I’d thrown a dictionary at. (I have several other memories of that girl bullying me.)

I had had other problems in school, so the IEP was not entirely unwarranted. Also, the entire concept of IEPs was new to Michigan at the time. I’m not sure I’d qualify for one in 2023, but I did in 1975 or so. I’m also pretty sure that, in 2023, I’d be labeled Autistic rather than Emotionally Impaired, but I’ll never know for sure.

Because of my IEP, I qualified to go to the Resource Room. Because it wasn’t related to a Learning Disability or Cognitive Impairment of the traditional sort (Undiagnosed Autistic with misinterpreted meltdowns didn’t count), the Resource Room staff weren’t quite sure to do with me.

I spent most of my time in my regular classroom, but I was assigned to go to the Resource Room on some pattern of time, maybe weekly, maybe daily, I don’t remember. I could also go hang out there anytime I was feeling overwhelmed.

In the Resource Room, they gave me random tasks to do. Sometimes it was what the rest of the kids were doing, because the teachers had the supplies out. Sometimes it was exploring whatever tool an Education Publisher had sent them a sample of.

At the time, I didn’t really grok that last bit. I just figured the teaching staff was buying random stuff and having me play-test it. As a teacher, now, I realize I was the guinea pig: If I couldn’t figure out, the LD and CI kids certainly couldn’t.

One of these was a series of cassettes that allegedly contained the text of “Moby Dick”.

A bit of history: It might seem strange to younger people, but there was a time when audiobooks weren’t widely available. Even now, there’s a component of society that sneers at them as not “real” books.

They began as an accommodation: In 1932, the American Foundation for the Blind began recording books onto vinyl records, at about fifteen minutes per side. For the first few decades, while the number of producers increased, audiobooks were still mainly for the blind (“A Short History of the Audiobook, 20 Years After the First Portable Digital Audio Device”, Alison Thoet).

By the 1970s, education companies were exploring using audiobooks to assist in literacy programs. A 1977 study, for instance, found that “college students who listened to a short story were able to summarize it with equal accuracy as those who read it” (“Audiobooks for Adult Literacy? It’s Not a Myth!”, Jennifer Vecchiarelli).

These days, it’s SOP for major publications to be available as audio recordings for the general population, but that wasn’t the case in the mid-70s.

Anyway, my teacher sat me down with a bulky clamshell containing several cassettes. Most teachers reading this, especially the older ones, will have instantly visualized what I’m describing. Imagine the puffy plastic clamshell that children’s VHS movies used to come in:

An image from Etsy that shows a stack of children’s titles on VHS: Babe, Rugrats, Fantasia, Antz, Casper, The Land Before Time II, Mouse Hunt, and The Muppet Christmas Carol

So, like that, but even bulkier.

I was given Herman Melville’s text to read along with, perhaps a pair of bulky overear headphones (the only kind available at the time; my memory is hazy on whether I had these), and a cassette player. The teacher put the first cassette in, side one, and…

It didn’t match the text. At all. It seemed to be what is called in literary circles “In medias res”: In the middle of the action. Or what everyone else calls “Not the right place.”

The teacher squinted at the cassette, then at the printed text, then back at the cassette. Aha! Somehow this “brand new, never before used by anyone” cassette tape was cued up to side two.

To my naïve fifth grade-or-so self, that seemed legit. To me, now, I’m highly suspicious. But I’m not sure why the teacher wouldn’t just admit that maybe someone else had already listened to it.

Sidebar: Sometimes I wonder how many of the adults in the special education services suspected I was an Autistic child, and regardless of that, how many of them walked daintily around me, often illogically, out of fear of the next meltdown. And now, back to the story.

She rewound it to side one. That took the few minutes it normally takes, especially with the squealing, on-its-last-legs cassette player.

Something like this, but certainly not this specific one. (The photo shows a Califone-brand CAS1500 cassette player/recorder. Photo snared from School Specialty.)

We tried again. This time, it seemed to maybe start at the same place, but the text didn’t quite match the book. Words were missing or changed. More squinting, more confusion, this time the teacher let out a resigned sigh.

And that was my entire first experience with an audiobook.

As far as I can remember, my second experience with an audiobook was decades later. I wanted to work on my German and French, so I tried buying books in both text and audio form in both languages.

The first one I tried was Leonie Swann’s German-language “Glennkill” (published in 2005). I opened the book, put on the audio version, and tried to follow along.

The experience wasn’t anywhere near as bad as it had been with “Moby Dick”, but it wasn’t perfect either. Words were changed. Portions seemed to be missing. I don’t know if there had been edition changes between publication and recording, if the reader made occasional mistakes, if I was not following along correctly, or what the problem was, but the mismatch was just enough to make it too frustrating for me to continue.

The same thing happened with the French book, the title of which eludes me now. I do still have both books in both forms, so it’s not too late to try again. At least there’s that.

Thinking back now about “Moby Dick”, I wonder if either the book or the cassette (or both) was a “children’s edition”, and not Melville’s own words. It’s likely, I think, that that’s why the texts didn’t match.

I spent some time Friday cleaning out my classroom, not because I’m leaving but because I realized I hadn’t touched half the bookshelves since I’d inherited the room seven years ago, and I was tired of pack-ratting someone else’s stuff. In so doing, I was reminded of how atrociously half-assed so much of the material in the education world is.

So “Moby Dick: The Audio Version” may well have been in that category, as edutech companies struggled with carving out territory in new technologies.

I don’t currently like audiobooks much, but I haven’t really given them a solid try yet (as I was typing this sentence, I got stuck on an intrusive lyric: “I don’t really miss you but I haven’t tried yet” [“I Got the Message”, Men Without Hats]).

A few years ago, we acquired an audiobook for the sole purpose of having someone read us to sleep, “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coehlo. We picked it because it was read by Jeremy Irons, and I wanted a soothing voice.

Sidebar: I couldn’t remember who the reader was as I was writing the paragraph above. I could picture his face, but all that came to mind was “He looks like an older Daniel Day Lewis”. So I googled “actor who looks like daniel day lewis”, not expecting anything but getting:

Google prevails: The search “actor who looks like daniel day lewis” yields “Jeremy Irons” with a side-by-side comparison of the two actors

That worked, but it reinforced my concern with audiobooks: Listening to people talking usually has one of two effects on me. It either puts me to sleep or it stresses me out. There are a handful of exceptions, but it’s hard for me to keep the proper focus for processing information when someone’s reading to me.

At the same time, though, my ND brain struggles with lots of printed text. I’m a fairly slow reader, and I also get distracted a lot. And when I’m watching a video with subtitles, my ability to choose my reading speed can get in the way of listening to the voice.

And then there’s NPR. I have friends who love love LOVE “Fresh Air”. I struggle because I need to hear every word and I can feel panicky if I miss something, but at the same time I feel like it’s all so intrusive. I don’t like having the pace chosen for me; I want to process information on my own terms, in my own time, which might be faster or might be slower than it’s given.

This is a challenge of aurally presented material, but on the other hand, I struggle with visual-only material. I think that first experience with an audiobook, the gross mismatch between written text and audio text, soured me in a very deep way.

Now that I’m thinking about it, this pacing issue is also a struggle for me for e-books, of which I have quite a few. If I’m reading a print book and find myself confused about what’s happening, I can easily flip back a few pages to remind myself of events. I have a pretty decent memory for how long ago (in pages) something was mentioned, and then I can quickly flip back to where I was in the book.

I don’t have to remember where stopped reading because I can put my finger there. But with an e-Book, I have to either go through the process of putting in a bookmark, or I need to hold the page number in one of the limited number of memory slots we all have in our brains.

Anyway, no real conclusion here, just meandering thoughts. This seems to have fizzled into chaos, so I’ll stop for now.

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