What we experience as audiobooks today originated in the UK in the 1920s as the talking book. Back then the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) tested different ways to produce books for the visually impaired. A decade or so later, in 1931, The American Foundation for the Blind and the Library of Congress Book for the Adult Blind Project established the US's own Talking Book Program designed to serve soldiers who sustained eye injuries in WWI and WWII. The earliest recordings included readings from the Bible, Helen Keller, and Edgar Allan Poe. Near the end of WWII, the New York Public Library's Women Auxiliary developed Recording for the Blind, an organization set up to record textbook passages for veterans who were blinded in the war and attending college on the GI Bill. In his brief history of the form, the visually impaired writer James Tate Hill talks about the importance of the National Library Service in his journey to becoming a book lover and writer despite untreatable vision loss. Hill writes,

By sophomore year, I had started dreaming of becoming a writer, a profession fraught with its own strain of impostor syndrome, and every time I wanted to read a book I couldn't get on tape, I felt like even more of a fraud. Adding to this were enduring doubts that reading with my ears wasn't the same book experience as print. Many years would pass before I would connect these insecurities to shame about my disability rather than any shortcomings of the audiobook.

I begin with this early history of audiobooks, as a service medium for the print disabled, to dismiss out of hand the tired debates about it being a lesser, somehow unintellectual, less rigorous form of reading. We also tend to disregard the usefulness of audiobooks for those who are better able to focus while listening than reading. The audiobook's origins as an aid for the print-disabled should give us pause in comparing it to print, and remind us of the ways these comparisons can carry ableist presuppositions.

Talking books became audiobooks with the invention of the audiocassette in 1969, the technology's new portability facilitating an audience beyond the visually impaired. As storage capacity and ease of mobility improved with the subsequent inventions of the compact disc (1982), the mp3 (1993), and streaming (around 2007), audiobooks metamorphosed from a suitcase of cassettes for the Bible, to seventeen discs for one Harry Potter book, to being instantly downloadable to personal portable devices like smart phones.

In 2013, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos bragged in a shareholder statement that "Audible makes it possible for you to read when your eyes are busy." Though a small part of the media and entertainment market, audiobooks have encroached, along with podcasts, into the pockets of silence in our daily lives commuting, doing chores, exercising. The audiobook industry has experienced significant growth in the last few years, from $240 million in 2016 to $3.5 billion in the first half of 2020. This year the annual growth rate in media entertainment stands at 4%. But the 20-30% annual growth in the audiobook market means experts are predicting that by 2023, audiobook sales will bypass eBook sales.

As modes of delivery evolved, so did performance styles. The audiobook industry today has its own performers, celebrities, and awards the Audies. Scott "Golden Voice" Brick, perhaps the most prominent figure in this world, has narrated over 900 titles, including John Grisham's entire oeuvre and Alexander Hamilton's biography.

I am personally more familiar with the voices of Robin Miles and Bahni Turpin, who together have cornered the market for fiction, non-fiction, and children's books by African American, Black British, and Caribbean writers. Miles and Turpin are the audiobook voices of the African Diaspora literary scene. In the last book I listened to, Lauren Wilkinson's novel American Spy, Turpin performs accents that range from French to French Caribbean to Burkinabe. I remain unimpressed by Miles's performance of Jamaican accents in Marlon James's John Crow's Devil, but she and Turpin nonetheless carry weight with me when I am deciding whether I will listen to a book, read it in print, or ignore it entirely.

And then there's the audiobook read by celebrities. The audio version of George Saunders's Lincoln in the Bardo, for instance, features 166 narrators including Nick Offerman, Megan Mullalay, Don Cheadle, David Sedaris, Lena Dunham, Susan Sarandon, and Saunders himself, as well as members of the author's family. This kind of production is obviously a very different thing from the print book, or even an audiobook read by a single reader doing all the voices. It is as much a portent of the medium's growth in profitability and popularity as it is a characteristic that marks the audiobook as a discrete medium.

(I admit to being susceptible to the lure of celebrity in my own audiobook reading. When my choice is between a version of Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court read by Lee Howard or Nick Offerman, I'm going with Offerman. Seriously, you should listen to Nick Offerman read Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Offerman brings the deadpan delivery familiar from his portrayal of Ron Swanson on Parks and Recreation to his reading of the Arthurian adventures of Twain's Hank Morgan. This is a performance, I think, that places emphasis on the novel's impassive dark humor in ways that would have gratified Twain.)

While professional readers still do the bulk of audiobook performances, celebrity readers are becoming increasingly common. The Autobiography of Malcom X: As Told to Alex Haley as read by Laurence Fishburne will be released in September of this year as an Audible Original. Amazon-owned Audible is the behemoth of global audiobook publishing, and its innovations attest to the industry's growth and transformation. In April, Audible announced another celebrity Audible Original project, the novel/play/book When You Finish Saving the World, written and performed by Jesse Eisenberg, the first audiobook to originate in audio rather than in print.

It is by these shifts a cadre of professional narrators, increased celebrity participation, musical scoring that audiobooks become their own medium. Voices infused by dramatic performances return, or transport, a print form, the book, into oral storytelling. On the page, Shelley's Frankenstein is replete with atmospheric tension brought about via the intimacy of letters and confessionals. Shelley published this novel amid nineteenth-century fear and confusion over controversial ideas about science, technology, mortality, and morality, and the drive to commercialize this particular confusion via print capitalism. Besides being a print commodity itself, the conceit of letters in the novel reinforces the notion of information being transmitted and circulated via paper; that this particular novel, at this time, is framed by paper-based missives is important. But when you add a dramatically foreboding orchestral score to the spoken narration and transitions between chapters and narrators, as in the audiobook, the written word slips out of the text, supplanted by voices and sound. This is not a minor shift.

It is a rare reversal for me to abandon an audiobook mid-listen for its print version. On the three occasions when I have done so, it was because the books demanded I pay attention to them as printed objects. The "half swastika," a color chart, and mathematical equations early in Fran Ross's Oreo; the box inventories, polaroid pictures, and various miscellanies of printed scraps in Valeria Luiselli's Lost Children Archive; the group text messages between The Corgis in Candice Carty-Williams' Queenie: all made me switch to the print version or these novels to see what these looked like on the page. Collage and mixed media translated poorly into audio; something was lost that the performers, however entertaining, couldn't recover. (Even if Shvorne Marks's reading of Carty-William's Queenie offers pitch perfect hilarity.)

Reading with your ears is not the same as reading with your eyes: not only because of how audiobook producers capitalize on what audio technology makes possible multiple narrators, musical transitions, sound effects like text message and email alerts but also because of all the variables an individual listener/reader brings to the process. For me, these include both professional and personal variables that are largely informed by time-management needs: I am a mid-career academic, who is also a woman of color, spouse, and mother - in other words Jeff Bezos's target audiobook audience.


I started listening to audiobooks in Spring 2018, when I went back to work after having a baby. I was still sleep deprived, with a limited bandwidth for focused attention. I constantly had to hit rewind, making me aware of just how limited my attention span was. This also helped me to practice focusing for longer periods.

As I made my way back to work, I had no idea how I was going to read everything required to teach and keep up with research and service, and still find time to take care of my small baby and participate in a marriage. I was thoroughly weary of all the openness that came with motherhood. I barely had any time to myself, and the act of putting in earbuds and listening was almost like privacy. And so I listened with every pocket of time when I wasn't interacting with other people or working on something that required quiet concentration. I was less apt to fall asleep listening than if I used my eyes to read, and so many a night before class, after partner and baby were in bed, I'd be up until two am with a book I'd assigned. It's a habit I've kept and now use for leisure as well as work. Much of what I've taught in the three years since becoming a mother I've already read in print. I started out thinking of audiobooks as efficient refreshers, but have begun to see of them as an effective medium for sustained critical thinking across multiple texts. This is facilitated by the consistency created by individual voices.

When Toni Morrison died, I realized it had been four years since I had read her, and longer since I had thought of her work for my research and writing. As a baby scholar, I wrote a BA thesis about representations of the Caribbean in her novels that was entirely too reliant on Tar Baby. Now it was with chagrin that I noted that I had only taught her work twice: once in grad school and once in 2015 both times The Bluest Eye. Up until last August, I hadn't even read Beloved. When she died I was, by coincidence, slowly making my way through a print copy of the novel, forestalling for as long as I could the terrible moments of death I knew were coming. Interrupted, I opened Libby, the public library app, and typed in The Bluest Eye. This initiated a wake of sorts, during which in mourning and in penance I listened to all her novels. Between the limited availability of quiet opportunities and the long wait for more popular titles like Sula and Song of Solomon, it took four months to listen to eleven books. I didn't listen in order, but borrowed and listened to what was available when I was ready, The Bluest Eye first and Paradise last.

Delightfully, with the exception of Tar Baby, Morrison narrates the novels herself. If you've read her on the page, you know her novels are very much about a cultivated ethos of secretive intimacy between narrator and reader. When you hear Morrison herself say, "Quiet as it's kept," or "They shoot the white girl first," it adds an entirely different kind of conspiratorial intimacy. You notice that the novels largely begin retrospectively, and more often than not with the revelation of something terrible that the narrative proceeds to unfold. Any distance we've been taught to cultivate between narrator and author collapses when the author's voice speaks the words directly into your ear.

If someone besides Morrison had read her novels, or if I had kept my wake in print, I would not have become attentive to how the cadence of her voice carries the same secretive quietness for narrating gossip as it does where women work on healing each other. The black communities became one large one, in my mind, where the women gossiping around Mrs. MacTeer's table in The Bluest Eye are the same ones who patch Cee back up after the doctor she worked for did things that Home doesn't even try to describe. It became clear that Morrison's novels imagine the possibility of community in the midst of quotidian cruelty and violence.

Morrison's voice allowed me to experience her oeuvre not as individual books, but as a corpus with a single voice. Listening made me more attentive to recurrent themes than to style at the level of the page. It made me attentive beyond the beautiful lyricism and allowed me to see, for instance, her material concerns with property ownership and real estate. In Song of Solomon, where Macon Dead II's obsession with property stems from the childhood trauma of seeing his father murdered over real estate, it's tempting to see ownership as just one more vehicle for Morrison's lyrical exploration of black pain and trauma. But Paradise initially my least favorite of Morrison's novels only began to make sense when I started to think about it in relation to the treatment of land ownership in her other novels, like A Mercy. The common cadence of Morrison's conspiratorial voice relating the machinations of land acquisition allowed me to imagine a continuum that runs from the seventeenth century and Jacob Vaark's dream "of a grand house of many rooms rising on a hill above the fog," to the land's urging in Song of Solomon for young Black men to "Grab this land! Take it, hold it, my brothers, make it, my brothers, shake it, squeeze it, turn it, twist it, beat it, kick it, kiss it, whip it, stomp it, dig it, plow it, seed it, reap it, rent it, buy it, sell it, own it, build it, multiply it, and pass it on," to the residents of Ruby, who mobilize violence to ensure "that nothing, inside or out, rots the one all-black town worth the pain."1

This continuum, made more readily accessible through the unity of Morrison's voice across multiple texts, clarified for me how violence springs from property ownership. Ruby's defensive assault on vulnerable women seeking refuge in an abandoned convent makes little sense in isolation. But when thought about as an intentionally hyperbolic, almost caricatural narrative at the opposite end of a continuum inaugurated by A Mercy, it's possible to see it as a representation of the dangers of defending private property over human life and the grotesquely ironic ways that black communities can perpetrate, as well as be victims of, such violence.

Morrison's voice makes a single narrative out of: the land settlement and development practices at work in the founding of the United States in A Mercy; the violence against the Catholic convent and women's refuge in Paradise; the importance of 124 Bluestone Road in Beloved; the squalor of the Breedlove's shop window and apartment in The Bluest Eye; and the disappearance of the Bottom from Sula. Sula is bookended by narratives of gentrification. The novel begins with a community that isn't there anymore the one we will learn about: "in that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood." In the last pages, the narrator reminds us of the beginning: "the Bottom had collapsed ... and the white people were buying down river, cross river, stretching Medallion like two strings on the banks. Nobody colored lived much up in the Bottom any more. White people were building towers for television stations up there and there was a rumor about a golf course or something." Across Morrison's novels a narrative of land and property adds a sharply materialist dimension to Morrison's account of Black and Indigenous women as outside of the system of ownership, even within Black communities, and thus consistently among the most vulnerable.2

One might come to the same conclusion by reading Morrison's novels in sequence and in print. But who has the time? Not this working mother. And Morrison's voice overrides the differences among the novels. Love couldn't be more different from God Bless the Child, Tar Baby from Home. But when I hear them in the same voice, differences dissipate. The audiobook as medium opens Morrison's work to me as a singular corpus, a single voice transcending the individual volumes.


As far as neoliberal art forms go, the audiobook's imbrication with capitalist encroachment on private leisure time via smart electronic devices is easy enough to see. What began as an accessibility tool now dissolves boundaries between private and professional time, between work and consumption. A leisure form for the perpetually busy, audiobooks are in the technological vanguard of contemporary grind culture helping you get your edification on while you work out, or do laundry, or drive to pick up your laundry after you work out. It is an art form for the "I'll sleep when I'm dead" age, allowing us to optimize every transitional moment into a productive one of learning, entertainment, or both.

I'm not immune. Recently, I was invited to discuss Jesmyn Ward's Sing, Unburied, Sing with a book club. I love that novel and have read it three times in print and listened to it twice more on audiobook. It is why I was slowly reading Beloved when Morrison passed: I'd been thinking about what Morrison probably taught Ward about the use of ghosts as an interface for history. I was thus excited to participate in a conversation about Ward's book. But, no matter how many times I'd read it, I wanted a refresher. Audiobooks to the rescue. I found the time to listen at 1.75x speed. "Can you follow at that speed?" my sister asked when she heard me listening without headphones. I can. I'm working my way up to 2x speed. I was done with Ward in six hours.

For Jonathan Crary, this colonization of leisure time is a sign of the diminishment of thresholds where we might hold ourselves separate from the exhaustions of markets and consumption. In 24/7: Late Capitalism and the End of Sleep, Crary notes that "within the globalist neoliberal paradigm, sleeping is for losers.... Time for human rest and regeneration is now simply too expensive to be structurally possible within contemporary capitalism." Sleep is among the last frontiers of market and consumptive intrusion, and as such, audiobooks participate in the insidious ways our time is becoming integrated into electronic exchanges and the banality of non-stop consumption.

Yet, listening to Morrison was a respite. When I think about audiobooks, I can't help thinking about the way they gave me a small space of privacy when I was trying to raise an infant while teaching and publishing, or the intimacy they gave me with Morrison after her death the way they taught me that Morrison's books are first and foremost about communities rather than individuals. Grinding away, I heard the chorus that speaks across every one of her books, and makes them something profoundly outside the neoliberal present in which they were produced. It is worth recalling too that the talking book is also a central metaphor in Black literature; one that describes a very different kind of mediated relationship to the printed word, originating in a time when the only access many enslaved people had to words on a page was through someone else reading. This is a useful reminder that our accounts of the relationship between art and neoliberalism can't be merely symptomatic, but have to be taken as part of a dialectic in which art retains its capacity to surprise us. In my audiobook wake for Morrison the one I held in the transitional spaces in my day what surprised me in her art was how her speaking voice joined individual novels into one collective text, revealing enduring concerns and recurrent omens in Black life, like the dangers belying the American Dream for those whose history in the United States began as commodities and private property. It's apt and perhaps ironic to learn this lesson from an art form that, for all of its technological sophistication, returns us to a state in which stories aren't something we read on the page, but something we hear carried on another human voice.

Sheri-Marie Harrison is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Missouri, where she researches and teaches Contemporary global anglophone literature, and mass culture of the African Diaspora. She is the author of the book Negotiating Sovereignty in Postcolonial Jamaican Literature (Ohio State University Press, 2014) as well as essays in Modern Fiction Studies, Small AxeThe Journal of West Indian Literature, The Oxford Research Encyclopedia, Contemporaries and The Los Angeles Review of Books.


  1. With gratitude to Sergio Gutiérrez Negrón for reminding me of the quote from Song of Solomon.[]
  2. Yes, Eva Peace's material stability might constitute an exception this. But then there's the mysterious business of her missing leg that suggests a Black woman cannot achieve property ownership without losing a part of herself. []