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.
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.
I seem to have spent a fair amount of time this week listening to podcasts from a variety of universities and radio stations. They’re perfect for lightening the deeply boring experience of ironing but I also enjoy listening them while on the cross trainer in the gym. What I’ve found however is that the quality can vary enormously, particularly those which are real-time recordings of university lectures.
Here are a few examples of ones I’ve enjoyed this week:
The Guardian Books podcast
This is a rich mixture of interviews with leading authors and commentary on developments in the publishing world. Of those I’ve listened to so far, the most memorable have been a walking tour of Oliver Twist’s London – you can listen to this while actually walking through the streets in which the novel is set. The two presenters reflect on how the area has changed and give fascinating background about some of the buildings – in one section we are given an explanation of how prisoners were made to walk up to eight hours a day on a treadmill which served no useful function but was there merely to keep them occupied. The commentary is intersposed with readings from the book. Highly recommended.
The second I enjoyed was an episode with Michael Frayn who talks about the background to his book Spies which features two young boys who play at hunting down spies in their London neighbourhood and take to following the mother of one of them. But what they think they discover and what is actually happening are two very different things. Frayn is an excellent raconteur and talks with good humour about his own childhood and how that informed the book.
Available on ITunes podcasts
BBC Radio 4: Foreign Bodies
A series which examines the tradition of crime fiction across Europe. Each episode takes an example from one of the European countries and examines how they how they reflected the particular period of their country’s history and – often – how they subverted the political regime. The first episode focused on Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret (one of my favourites); but since then we’ve had the Inspector Montelbano series from Sicily and PD James and Ruth Rendell from England . The series has introduced me to writers I now nothing about yet who are household names in their own countries ( like Friedrich Durrenmatt who wrote the highly successful Inspector Barlach mysteries). Available on ITunes podcasts
Oxford University: George Eliot
This is a series of first year undergraduate lectures designed to introduce us to Eliot’s view of the world and how this was reflected in her novels. Eliot had a huge intellect and was keenly interested in science, especially Darwinism, and humanism. The lectures look at Eliot’s view of the intellect and consciousness.
Available on ITunes university podcasts
Cambridge University: Key terms and Concepts in Literary Criticism
Nine podcasts which dive into topic such as ‘The nature of the reader’; ‘Nature and the Imagination’ and ‘The Pastoral’. Each lecture is delivered by a different specialist and is designed to help undergraduates acquire the skills needed for literary criticism. Ive only got as far as the first one about The Reader so far – the quality is excellent though many of the ideas are quite hard to grasp.