How Technology Transformed My Relationship With Books

That was then: Consuming books 1950s style

Remember the days when the only way to listen to a book was via the radio? 

The options were limited.  BBC Radio 4 had Book at Bedtime and about 15 minutes of a serialisation within Woman’s Hour. When Parliament wasn’t in session we had the treat of another 15 minutes slot in the morning where Today in Parliament normally sat in the schedules.

All fine if you happened to be somewhere near a radio at the allotted time. But if not, it was just hard luck.

How life has changed

Today I no longer have to tie myself to the radio schedules or sit in one place to listen. I can use BBC Sounds as a catch up service, listening in via my computer while I move about the house or garden.

But I don’t even have to restrict myself to radio broadcasts.

I can listen to audio recordings of books whenever I want to and wherever I want to be.

Thousands of books

Available any time of day or night

On every day of the year.

This is now: personalised audio streaming

Advances in technology have affected virtually every aspect of our lives. But I’ve only now realised just how much they’ve changed the way I engage with books, and in particular with audio versions of books.

1970s and 80s: All Hail The Cassette Tape

While searching for a screwdriver in our garage yesterday, I came across some of my husband’s very old and sad-looking cassette tapes.  I’ve yet to work out what they were doing in the boxes of tools mixed up with the pliers and hammers… but that’s maybe another story.

Cassette tapes? Never heard of them? They’re no longer around (except as a very niche trend.  But they were essential pieces of equipment for those of us whose teenage and young adult years spanned the seventies and eighties.

Audio cassettes (also known as compact cassettes) were little plastic cartridges containing two spools of magnetic tape. All you had to do was buy the cassette version of an album recorded by your favourite band; slot the  cassette into a player; grab your headphones and away you’d go into musical heaven.

The launch of Sony’s Walkman in 1979 gave even more flexibility – now we could listen while we walked, worked or just lounged around.

You could even create a playlist by recording selected tracks from another cassette or from a radio station.

But the joys of cassettes weren’t confined to music. In the mid 80s I discovered you could also get audio recordings of books on cassette. The local library had a great selection available at minimal cost. By then cassette players came as standard fixtures in cars. Instead of arriving at work agitated after listening to politicians argue on the prime time radio news programmes, I could be chilled having listened to a good book.

It wasn’t quite a case of  unbounded pleasure however because, though cassette tapes were light and portable, they did have one major flaw: the tape tended to get mangled inside the plastic casing after multiple plays.

I’d be in my car,  listening to a recording, when suddenly it would stop. Inevitably it happened at the most exciting/interesting part of the story.

If I was lucky, I could eject the cassette. But yards of tape would have come off the spools and would be lying crinkled and twisted in a spaghetti mess on my lap .

The remedy was primitive. And not one you could embark upon while stuck at the traffic lights.

You grabbed a pencil, wedged it into one spool and tried to hold it rigid while slowly attempting to wind the tape back onto the other spool. A painfully slow process with only a faint hope of success.

1990s: Shiny New Objects

Which was why, when the next gizmo came along, I embraced it with unparalleled joy. In 1982 the technology whizz kids at Philips and Sony launched a new audio storage device they called the compact disc (CD).

It marked the beginning of the end for the cassette tape. And the introduction to a new way of consuming more books

It took a few years before I latched onto CDs but I rapidly became a fan, ditching all my cassette tapes in favour of these ultra-light shiny objects. I wasn’t the only one – most of us had purpose build CD storage towers in our homes and wallet-style carrying cases in our cars.

In 1993, the tide had turned completely and sales of CDs outstripped those of cassettes for the first time. By then the technology giants had figured out how to make CD players in cars shock proof (no more skipping a track when you drove over a pothole). A few years later the first portable CD player, the CD Walkman, came on the market making it easy to take your music wherever you went.

I still have one of these portable CD players though I seldom use it.

If you just wanted music you’d be in a good spot because the albums were cheap to buy. Just as well because the discs had a terrible tendency to get scratched. It was partly my own fault. I kept forgetting to put them into their protective cases. So they’d be ruined and unplayable.

But I wanted audiobooks. And that had its own challenges.

The storage capacity of each disc meant a whole book required at least six discs – sometimes double that for one of the chunkier classics. It made them way too expensive to buy, especially at the rate I would get through them. The library fortunately began investing in the new format but a whole audio book was quite a large package. Fine if you just wanted to listen in the car but not much use for taking on flights or long train rides. They took up far too much space.

Technology for a New Century

In 2001 Steve Jobs, chief executive of Apple, invited us to say “hello” to the brave new world of full portability and solid state technology.

The days of flimsy tape and scratchy discs were over, he said. It was time for the era of the IPod. A small device with astonishing capacity and potential.

It wasn’t his promise of 1,000 songs in my pocket that appealed to me most. What really sold me on the iPod was that I could use it to listen to audio books. It didn’t just store these recordings, the associated ITunes application  gave me access to an enormous library via a few clicks. Not just a library of books, but with the birth of podcasts in 2004, a library of thousands of programmes and discussions about books.

I bought my first iPod in 2002 during a work trip to Michigan. I couldn’t drive back to my hotel fast enough so I could open the box and begin playing with my new toy.

Except that I couldn’t.

This much heralded white gizzmo only slightly bigger than a cigarette packet refused to function. Not even when I discovered that I first had to charge the battery. The old cassette and CD players never had that problem – all they needed was a power supply or a few AA batteries.

Eight hours or so later and still not so much as a peep. So back to the store for a replacement. Same thing happened again. By now I was seriously questioning whether the iPod was all it was cracked up to be.

It was. It still is.

Every once in a while a new product comes along that changes everything.

Steve Jobs, 2001

Steve Jobs wasn’t exaggerating when he made that claim about the Ipod. It certainly transformed part of my life.

Listening to an audio book made the long flights I had to take for work much easier to bear. They helped when international time zone differences  would see me awake in the early hours of the morning in a strange hotel room, unable to get back to sleep. In more recent years when I was undergoing chemotherapy treatment I used my little machine to access some relaxation and breathing exercises I could get via the ITunes application.

Are We Ever Satisfied? 

Technology never stays still does it?  Each generation of the iPod since 2001 has been smaller. And lighter. And more powerful.  I’m on my fourth device now and can’t imagine being without one. Although my phone has some of the same functions I still prefer to listen to audio via the iPod.

As enamoured as I am with this brand of MP3 player, it does have its frustrations.

  • The battery charge doesn’t last anywhere as long as it did on the early versions.
  • ITunes library is now over-complicated. It seems impossible to completely delete Podcast episodes.
  • Too many apps I don’t want but can’t delete (like my non existent stock portfolio).
  • In-ear headphones that keep falling out. Are my ears different sizes to everyone else’s? I’ve bought many, many pairs over the years both low price and high end. And none of them have worked. I’ve resorted to using the hook over versions but the wiring is fragile so they break easily.

I’ve learned to live with most of these frustrations. But there’s one that drives me crazy.

I absolutely hate ear phone cables. There I’ve said it.

They always always always end up in a knot. I wind them carefully as soon as I finish using them. Tuck them into my bag in a neat roll. But you can bet the next time I go to use them they’ll be in a mess. Again.

Added to this is that they get in my way in the gym, dangling right where my arm wants to move – invariably I catch my thumb on the cable and the machine goes careering onto the floor. It’s favourite landing place is underneath the treadmill; a retrieval process which involves much swearing and grunting. By the time the two of us are re-united, the play function has helpfully skipped a chapter or two.

My Wishlist For the Future

Technology never stands still. Earlier today came news that Apple will launch a new video streaming service and a new version of the Apple iPhone. Samsung will launch its new folding phone within a few days (a snip at $1800). None of these advancements interest me.

What I really want, what I really really want is a more streamlined way to listen to my audio books. One that

  • doesn’t involve dangling cables
  • connects to the player via Bluetooth but doesn’t require me to wear heavy headphones ( the rap artist look doesn’t appeal)
  • fits snugly in my ears
  • allows voice control to select tracks, change volume etc – that way I can keep both hands on the steering wheel or go walking in cold weather without having to remove gloves.

See, my needs are quite simple.  These advancements are not as sexy as those the techno folks are undoubtedly working on right now. I just hope they don’t come up with something that robs me of my ability to listen to books easily, cheaply and with great sound quality.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

43 thoughts on “How Technology Transformed My Relationship With Books

  • I have a little set of blutooth cableless earbuds which are great and very cool looking. Unfortunately when they fall out – as they do frequently – the lack of cables means they can end up anywhere… 😂 I’ve gone back to using cableless on-ear headphones. They may not look as good but they stay on…

    • I know I would lose those cableless ones – the new buds from Apple might look neat but they wouldn’t last long with me.

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  • I still have music cassettes from the 1980s, I don’t throw anything out. Later a friend of my son’s would make me mix-tapes, introducing me to Lard and the Dead Kennedys. I think the last truck I drove that had a cassette player was in 2009. I knew about books on tapes but it was only when I discovered a library of books on cd (a truckstop in the outback) that I and nearly every other truckie that I know, began listening to books all the time. The biggest book may have been 1Q84 on 18 discs from memory.

    As long as my local library stocks audiobooks on cd that is the technological level I will stick at, though I do sometimes download books from Project Gutenberg to play via the USB port. Next step no doubt will be to listen to books on my phone bluetoothed to the truck radio, but not yet.

    • I know I’m talking to the converted when I mention my enjoyment of audiobooks. You must get through scores of them in your truck – your library must e very well endowed to keep up with your demand

  • Gosh cassettes take me back!
    And there definitely are new frustrations that come with advancing technology- but overall it’s been great to have so many new modes to read more! though I wouldn’t say no to your simple changes 😉

    • Do you think the folks at Apple are taking note of our wishlist??

  • I still have some books on cassette tape – they are tapes I had as a child/ teen and I listened to the same story over and over – there’s still comfort in them. Interestingly, my 12yo daughter listens to the same audio books on repeat every night (I switch off the ipod when I go to bed!).

    • I assume you still have a cassette player? Mine went long ago along with most of our vinyl records.

      • Yes, I still have a cassette player and a record player and all my vinyl!

        • we hung onto the vinyl for years. just have getting rid of most of them the trend began to buy vinyl. Could have sold our collection I suspect

  • Sheree @ Keeping Up With The Penguins

    Oh wow, so many glorious hits of nostalgia in this post! The unspooling of cassettes! The skipping CDs over potholes!! My life was likewise changed by the introduction of the iPod (I’ve transitioned to the iPhone completely now, but same thing): I’m still blown away by the unbelievable vast array of content I can access–FOR FREE!–via podcasts. I was gifted a set of cordless headphones last Christmas, in-ear ones that connect via Bluetooth, and they really are wonderful. They don’t have the voice-control capacity on your wishlist, but I’m sure whizzes are working on that somewhere for the next generation of the technology.

    • podcasts are fantastic – I’m currently listening o one about a miscarriage of justice that happened in the city near me when I was a young reporter.

  • Good wish list. My “reading” today is nearly all audio on my long commute by car. Bluetooth would be great. The cable that connects device to stereo always gets a short and screeches. No fun.

    • one issue with listening in the car is that when you get to a good passage, you can’t book mark it.

      • Yes, I’ve nearly died trying to scribble passages down and drive lol. I also have brains and pull over and write it down or at least memorize the time mark and get it later, but I do have to give up a lot of great quotes. The flip side is I’d have gone stark raving mad listening to the giggling-over-nothing sidekicks of on-air radio personalities without books. Radio is the worst!

        • I never thought about noting the time mark. Great idea …..

  • Times have changed, eh? Have you tried wireless over you ear earphones? They connect to your phone or computer via bluetooth and since they sit on you ears and not in them you don’t have to worry about the earbuds falling out and no wires.

    • I haven’t come across those Stefanie but will go looking for them

  • I must confess I really don’t listen to audiobooks, though I love my portable technology for music! I think my response to being read to would very much depend on the reader – I have some poetry collections on CD read by the authors, and love those, but I don’t actually know if a whole book would work for me…

    • So much depends on the voice of the narrator Karen. I reject lots of audiobooks for that reason. I have a few poetry collections on CD also – one in which Richard Burton reads Dylan Thomas (pure magic). I ordered a CD of Shakespeare’s sonnets once – it was about the worst rendition of Shakespeare I think I’ve ever heard.

  • Brilliant post! I remember books on tape, in fact my library still issues them as well as CDs and digital downloads. I can recommend some lightweight Bluetooth headphones, made by Fresh ‘n’ Rebel, reasonably priced and sound great.

  • I really recommend the Reading the End podcast, ‘by the demographically similar Jennys.’ Two friends talking about books and literature in general; it never fails to make me smile.

    • thanks for that recommendation – will take a look later this week

  • Thank you. I am always looking for new podcasts. And I think this fits right in. I have to check some the ones you have listed.

  • I have very poor attention levels on audio. I’ve tried getting into audio books and podcasts, but somehow I tend to drift off and lose track.

    • that does happen depending on which book I am listening to – especially in the car. In the gym or while gardening. ironing etc i can concentrate more

  • Thank you! Some new ones to add to my list.

  • If you are into podcasts at the moment, have a listen to Serial 1 and 2, they are outstanding and addicted

  • Some other great bookish podcasts are: The Bookrageous Podcast – even though they haven’t updated this year yet 🙁 and Books My Job Gave Me with Brionna 🙂

  • The Blacklisted podcast is one of my favourites, and I’m not just saying that because Andy was kind enough to speak to me about Jean Rhys! What I particularly like about it is the way they shine a light on an old book, often a lesser-known work that deserves to be read more widely. Raymond Chandler’s The High Window, for instance – not one of his most famous works, but a very interesting step in his development as a writer.

    • it helped me decide that Riddle of the Sands would not be for me but i was intrigued by last Exit to Brooklyn

  • There is also LibriVox for the classics. Free in numerous formats, read by volunteers.

    • I’ve had really mixed experience with them. Some of the voices sound horribly tinny to me. I know they are volunteers and doing great work but I had to stop so many recordings because there was little tonal variation.

      • Yes, there is quite a variance in the quality of the narrators.

  • I’ve really enjoyed iTunes U and found a fantastic set of lectures on The American Novel Post-1945 from Yale – the instructor is called Amy Hungerford. The episodes on Wise Blood, Black Boy, Lolita and Blood Meridian are particularly great. I tried listening to Backlisted but it just drove me mad; the meandering was too much! And the hosts’ voices…well…were irritating. Superficial, I know.

  • it was a brave choice to go for that storyline – a few times i found it a bit repetitive (how many more times can the mother say I should be with her). But what an even braver choice to totally move away from the cast everyone knows and introduce a secondary cast in the form of the jury. I know the stalwarts of the show don’t like some of the new developments but I think the scriptwriters are ace

  • How are you doing Amy – looks like you’re busy with the family right now

  • sometimes they do have serious topics – like what books do you find help if your’re feeling a bit down. But the rapport between the presenters is so good that it lightens the overall mood


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