From Oration to Audio Book

"The German does not read aloud, he does not read for the ear, but only with his eyes. He puts his ears away in a drawer for the time," Friedrich Nietzsche once chided.

Over the course of time, those in the Western world have lost sight of the fact that written and printed language is only ever a chronicling of the spoken and as such will always be an incomplete achievement. Earlier writers were most certainly conscious of this. Goethe noted that written language is but a sorry surrogate for the spoken word. Lessing stressed that his works only achieved completeness through verbalisation.

A clear comparison can be made with musical scores: the notes arranged into measures and movements correspond to a book's sentences, paragraphs and chapters. Music does not become music until the instruments of an orchestra come alive. It's no different with a book; a book does not become a literary work until human interpretation gives it meaning. As opposed to printed books, audio books provide more than just a collection of ideas rendered in text. The human voice is added to the equation to creatively interpret the words.

While the invention of printing was incontestably crucial to the spread of science and literature, it nevertheless gradually crowded out the verbal dissemination of literary works. Those who could read would naturally read. The more people who could read, the more frequently reading took place alone in a quiet little nook. Back in the 17th century, it was still considered impolite to read a letter to yourself if there was someone else in the room. So one, of course, would read aloud.

Reading aloud remained the norm into the 19th century, at all times and with great pleasure, no doubt also with great finesse. However, with the rise in public schooling and its associated reading and writing skills came the concept that reading aloud and listening to such discourse no longer embodied sensory pleasure. It was considered a necessary assistance to those who could not read and thus underwent a certain social devaluation.

Ultimately, the invention of recording media led to a resurgence in the art of the spoken word. The first sound storage medium was the record. Even though records had the disadvantage of very poor sound reproduction and very short recording times in their infancy, this was obviously far better tolerated for musical pieces than for recorded words. Later on, the record would also contribute to the spreading of written works of art and documentation. Famous stage actors read poems, short verses or monologues from plays.

With the invention of the tape recorder, several hours could now be recorded and soon gave everyone the opportunity to record themselves. Radio was also important in the revival of recitation, giving rise to a whole new genre in radio plays and novellas. And yet as radio and television began to make dramatic inroads in the early 1950s, "spoken-word records" were quickly relegated to the wayside. The spoken word fell out of fashion, dismissed to leading only a niche existence for the next fifty years.

Meanwhile, audio books for the blind - taped readings of literature - were developed. This was a rediscovery of the art of reading, yet only considered an aid to those who could not themselves read printed matter. These recordings were not available to the seeing public.

Finally, it was the invention of the cassette tape recorder and the Walkman which created the basis for the proliferation of audio books, since one now had a small portable playback device and an inexpensive audio medium with sufficient storage capacity. Today the MP3-Player is the adequate device for audio books.

Audio books are now back in vogue. Part of this is due to people feeling flooded by stimuli today, their eyes fatigued by computer work and not being able to find the necessary state of repose for reading, while an audio book can relax virtually anywhere - while ironing or cleaning, on long car or train trips, or while soaking in the tub.