“How We Read” Exhibition Now Online

Front of RNIB record of Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford

Last year Dr Heather Tilley and I organized a public exhibition titled “How We Read: A Sensory History of Books for Blind People.”

“How We Read” explores the history of reading technologies that have been designed for blind people over the past two centuries. The exhibition begins with the development of embossed literature at the start of the nineteenth century, examines innovations in sound and optical character recognition scanning devices during the twentieth century, and reflects on the status of today’s assistive technologies. From raised print to talking books and optophones, such devices have made reading material accessible to many thousands of visually disabled readers in Britain.

The exhibition is now online. Videos, photos, and sound recordings can all be found under the website’s “Gallery” tab.

Visitors to this blog will be especially interested in the section on “Talking Books.” There, you can listen to excerpts from books recorded between 1935 and 1998:

1. William Makepeace Thackeray, The History of Henry Esmond

2. Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford (read by Anthony McDonald)

3. Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford (read by Marjorie Anderson)

4. Charles Lever, Harry Lorrequer

5. Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (read by Laidman Browne)

6. Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (read by Christopher Oxford)

7. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (read by Emilia Fox)

8. Thomas Hughes, Tom Brown’s Schooldays (read by Peter Gray)

9. Arthur Conan Doyle, The Return of Sherlock Holmes (read by Peter Cushing)

10. Wilbert Awdry, Thomas the Tank Engine (read by Andrew Timothy)

11. Roald Dahl, James and the Giant Peach (read by Roald Dahl)

12. Sue Townsend, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole (read by Gretel Davis)

13. Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting (read by multiple narrators – WARNING: contains profanity)

14. J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (read by Stephen Fry)

The following link will take you to the “How We Read” exhibition and all of the recordings: http://www.howweread.co.uk/gallery/talking-books/

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Pronunciation Guides

Simon Vance reading in the studio

One thing separating professional voice actors from the amateurs is the amount of preparation time they put into a book. There are occasional exceptions like Simon Vance who can deliver virtuoso performances despite never reading books in advance (he describes himself as “an excellent sight reader” who honed his skills while receiving scripts at short notice as a BBC news reader). But for every Simon Vance there are actors like Brad Pitt whose mispronunciations might have been avoided with a bit of prep time. (See “Read Me a Story, Brad Pitt: When Audiobook Casting Goes Terribly Wrong.”)

Publishers often prepare pronunciation guides to help narrators. Some of the most elaborate notes I’ve come across have been prepared by talking book studios, which go to great lengths to ensure that blind audiences have access to accurate recordings of printed books. These reports are often dozens of pages long.

The following set of guidance notes was prepared by Britain’s Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) for Dorothy Dunnett’s Gemini. The notes contain everything a narrator needs to know in order to read the book aloud.

Here are a few of the key questions:

What languages, British dialects, and foreign accents are spoken?

Who tells the story: a man or a woman? Approximately how old are they? Where are they from? What do they sound like?

Is the novel told in first-person?

Where is the book set?

Does the book contain sex, profanity, violence, or otherwise “disturbing” elements?

There are also useful notes about how other characters sound and the role played by various accents throughout the story. The bulk of the report is a pronunciation guide to names, technical terms, and otherwise tricky words.

What’s immediately clear from looking at all 18 pages of the report is how much work has gone into the recording even before the first word has been spoken. Brad Pitt might want to hire the report’s author if he decides to record another book.

Have a look for yourself. The full report is available here: Gemini Pronunciation Guide [PDF]

Credit: My thanks to Dave Thorpe for sharing the notes with me.