The Great War, Blindness, and Britain’s Talking Book Library


This week I gave a lecture at the British Library titled “From Shell Shock to Shellac: The Great War, Blindness, and Britain’s Talking Book Library.” Here’s a short abstract of the talk, followed by historic sound recordings of the oldest surviving talking books:

“Britain’s Talking Book Library began as a way of providing reading material to soldiers blinded during the First World War. Talking books were specially modified gramophone records containing recitations of the Bible, Shakespeare, and popular fiction. This public lecture traces the talking book’s development from the initial experiments after the War to its debut and reception among blind soldiers and civilians in the 1930s. The presentation has been put together using archives held by the Royal National Institute of Blind People and St Dunstan’s, the two organisations responsible for Britain’s Talking Book Library. It will also feature sound recordings of the oldest surviving talking book records.” Further details are listed on the British Library’s website: “What’s On.”

The two recordings I played were from William Makepeace Thackeray’s History of Henry Esmond (1852) and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford (1851). As far as I’ve been able to determine, the Thackeray recording is the oldest surviving talking book made in Britain. It was among the first five works of fiction recorded when the Talking Book Library opened in November 1935. (The first two by Agatha Christie and Joseph Conrad have both been lost or destroyed, alas.) Shellac records are very fragile. This one only survived because it was kept safe in EMI’s archives. The Gaskell recording was made a few months after the Thackeray recording and is of interest because the narrator is Anthony McDonald, who read the first talking book. So, even though the earliest recordings are missing, we can at least hear his voice on this slightly later one.

William Thackeray, History of Henry Esmond (1852):

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford (1851), read by Anthony McDonald:

Here’s a link to my essay on Britain’s Talking Book Library in Twentieth Century British History:

Full Text:



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