Talking Books, Toni Morrison, and the Transformation of Narrative Authority: Two Frameworks: K. C. Harrison
Twenty-eight percent of Americans have listened to an audiobook in the last year, according to a 2008 survey conducted for the Audio Publishers Association.1 In a population where only 7 to 12 percent of adults report reading literature, this indicates that audiobooks may constitute the most vibrant site of literary activity in a population in which extended, book-length reading has been overtaken by other forms of media engagement, most notably television and Internet use.2 This chapter began as a defense of the literary value of the recorded book; a dearth of scholarly literature on the medium seemed to show that a widely popular form was not being taken seriously by the academic establishment. Whereas it is true that a volume addressing the medium is long overdue, my research tends to show that, on the contrary, academics and avid readers happily avow their enjoyment and appreciation of recorded books. These readers may not take advantage of the pedagogical potential of recordings, but they take for granted that recorded books have an important place in contemporary culture that augments, rather than impoverishes, literary life.3 Given the widely acknowledged popularity of audiobooks, therefore, what are the appropriate frameworks for assessing the stakes of the transition from print to audio? This chapter proposes that reception studies complement ongoing discussions in African American studies considering the relationship between oral expression and the technologies of print and sound. Rather than identify meaning with an ideal reading that resides within the fi xed pages of the book, understanding how meanings arise from the varying conditions of performance and reception in the case of the audiobook illuminates avenues for interpreting print literature that include a diverse range of audience responses.