Notes From the Book Review Archives

Audiobooks are at the center of this week’s issue. When they first appeared, in the 1930s, they were called “talking books” and were intended for blind people. In 1942, Robert van Gelder interviewed Robert B. Irwin, the executive director of the American Foundation for the Blind and an original advocate for “talking books.”

“Do you use poetry much for the talking books?”

“We don’t use a great deal of poetry. Blind people aren’t any more interested in poetry, by and large, than people who can see,” said Mr. Irwin.

“I thought that perhaps listening to the exceptional phrase, and having more time to let it sink in, and unravel the meanings” —

“But every one has a private idea of how poetry — familiar poetry — should be read,” he said. “Whether you know it or not, when you read a familiar poem to yourself you are giving each line your own emphasis. We have actors on our list who can read Shakespeare well — and it is wonderful how actors love to read Shakespeare, I suppose because they often start being actors at the time they discover Shakespeare — but it is a tough job to find people who can read familiar verse in a way that will suit most listeners.”

“How about controversial material? Do you steer away from that in making selections for talking books?”

“We did for a time — because we had to. In making talking books our boss is the Librarian of Congress. But it seems to me, and it seems to Mr. MacLeish who is now the Librarian, that a blind individual has as much right to be let in on controversies as a person who can see.”

Mr. Irwin said that talking books are not likely to be commercialized, although on first thought it seems a very good idea to buy or rent records and listen to a book read.

“People who can see to read for themselves haven’t the patience. A talking book uses up too much of their time.”

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