chapter  1
19 Pages

The Three-Minute Victorian Novel: Remediating Dickens into Sound: Jason Camlot


Among Thomas Edison’s speculations about the signifi cance of the phonograph in his 1878 essay “The Phonograph and Its Future” was the prediction of audiobooks, or as he called them, “Phonographic books.” As he forecast: “A book of 40,000 words upon a single metal plate ten inches square . . . becomes a strong probability. The advantages of such books over those printed are too readily seen to need mention. Such books would be listened to where now none are read. They would preserve more than the mental emanations of the brain of the author; and, as a bequest to future generations, they would be unequaled.”1 Edison may have dreamed about having a novel in its entirety (he is said to have referred to Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby as his example) on a compact audio record, but it was not until the 1930s, under the initiative of the Library of Congress Books for the Adult Blind project, that books the length of Victorian novels were actually transferred into the medium of sound.2 And even then, when Victor Hugo’s Les misérables was produced in talking book format on records that played at 33 1/3 rpm-much slower than the then commercial standard of 78 rpm-it still ran to an unwieldy 104 double-faced disks.3 The audiobook as we now think of it was not a material possibility in the early days of sound recording. The basic navigation and storage constraints of the Edison cylinder and Victor fl at disc record circa 1900 set the parameters for what this medium could mean for literature during the acoustic era of sound recording.