Listening Lessons: Reading Aloud and the Politics of Attention, 1800-1932
My current book project considers that most popular of Victorian evening entertainments, reading aloud, from the perspective of listeners--especially the rowdy and intractable ones. Proponents of mass literacy recommended reading aloud as a safe mode of encountering text for the century’s so-called “new readers”: women, children, and workers. Yet I find that the literature of the period does not portray reading aloud as "safe" at all.
Listening Lessons surveys fiction's unruly listeners: tired laborers who zone out while listening to the Bible, women who fall asleep to their husbands' Shakespeare delivery, and children who eavesdrop on their parents reading the newspaper's sex scandals. I study how novelists deploy these listeners as part of a larger campaign to articulate the novel's cultural function--and its capacity to shape our habits and hierarchies of attention.
In considering the book as sounded and heard, this project also calls for greater communication between histories of reading and sound studies. In this history of the audiobook before sound recording, I contemplate the book-read-aloud as one of the century's most influential sonic media--a "talking book" that left impressions not on wax cylinders, but on the novel and its history.
"The phonograph at home reading out a novel." From 'The Papa of the Phonograph,' Daily Graphic (New York), April 2, 1878, 1 (The Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, Ohio).