THE LISTENING BOOK: READING ALOUD AND THE NOVEL, 1800-1935
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. Household reading distracted the working man from the drink and radical politics tempting him at the pub; allowed parents to censor their children’s reading material; and prevented women from poring over novels alone, thus neglecting the duties of hearth and home. Yet the fiction of the period, I find, consistently portrays reading aloud as operating contrary to its ostensible aims: inspiring new temptations, awakening illicit curiosities, and causing women to snore in the face of their husbands’ pedantry.
The Listening Book surveys these unruly listeners, asking what dozing, daydreaming, laughing, and questioning auditors teach us about the evolution of the novel in relation to England’s expanding national reading public. I chronicle how the listening reader took center stage in debates about the novel’s purpose and form, ultimately giving shape to lasting conventions of the genre. In considering the book as sounded and heard, this project also calls for greater communication between histories of reading and the interdisciplinary field of sound studies. Pushing back against fiction’s stubborn association with silent reading and solitary absorption, I tune in to the novel's investments in debates about sound and listening and contemplate the book-read-aloud as one of the century’s most influential sonic media. In this way, I offer a prequel to the audiobook--a tale of the “talking books” that left impressions not on wax cylinders, but on the novel and its history.