Monday, 24 September 2012

The iPhone provides a novel way of consuming novels – but synthesised voices and literature don't mix

Listening to Das Kapital?
All you iPhone Moonies probably know about this already – but I was talking to a chap at a party at the weekend who has come up with an intriguing way of “reading” books. He’s 59-year old information architect who lives in Worcester Park and commutes many miles to and from his office in Central London every day on his bike, plugged into his iPhone. He downloads novels and then gets the iPhone to “speak” the text. He’s already got through between fifty and sixty novels this way, and is currently in the middle of The Brothers Karamazov (so at least he’s in no danger of falling off his bike laughing).

To be clear, these aren’t audio-books (which are, in any case, bloody expensive), so he’s just using one of the available “system” voices (I presume – being technically clued-up, he might have downloaded a fancy one). I wondered if it might not be off-putting to hear classic literature read in the tones of Stephen Hawking, but he assured me the voices are better than that. He also said he actually liked the emotionless delivery because he can’t stand ACTORs interpreting texts for him in an ACTORLY way – an antipathy which means he doesn’t watch TV adaptations of novels.

I’ve just tried out the same thing on my Mac (I rather fancy an iPhone, but I lead too sedentary a life to justify buying one). I went to the excellent Project Gutenberg site, which offers tens of thousands of classic works in a variety of formats, chose a plain text version of Vanity Fair (which I’m currently reading on my Kindle) and got my computer to read it to me.

The results were… dreadful!

Every available voice (apart from the “joke” ones, like Cello and Bells and Hysterical) sounds like a Swedish-American talking through a synthesiser with the “phase” effect on 11 (i.e. just like Stephen Hawking). At normal speed, much of the text is incomprehensible, as consonants such as d and t sound as if they’ve been transposed (i.e. liddle and tinner for little and dinner), and by the time you’ve figured out what they actually meant, Agnetha Brunchburger or Sven Roosevelt III is halfway through the next paragraph. Making the voice slower is even worse, because, while the meaning is now slightly clearer, it’s like being read to by a dyslexic, and you find yourself going into predictive text mode.

My OS is six years old, and Apple will no doubt have provided more convincing voices for their various devices by now. But I doubt they’ve been able to stop users feeling as if they’re being read to by someone with Autism sufferer, who doesn’t understand the meaning of what they’re reading (which, by definition, of course, the device doesn't). I’m all for disintermediation (the in-word when I first started working in new media), but when it comes to listening to novels, I may just be one of those people who needs an actor doing some of the interpretive work for me.

Still, it’s an intriguing way of consuming literature in a time-efficient manner, and as it evidently works well for my weekend interlocutor – why shouldn't he? I bet it makes the slog of cycling for miles a lot easier. I tend to listen to dramas on Radio 4 Extra when I’m ironing, and, if something good’s on I can get through a dozen items without registering the fact that I’m doing an essentially dreary task. And I find that even very annoying ACTORS become more bearable if you can’t actually see them (I, too, am allergic to television adaptations of classic novels - my wife and two of our friends watched a recording of the final episode of Parade's End the other night while I chose to moon around doing the washing-up and checking my email.)

Weirdly, although I’ll happily listen to drama on radio for several hours at a time,  I haven’t been able to get on with audio-books, even on tedious car journeys. Perhaps the lucky dip aspect of switching on at random times and not knowing what you’re going to get - and the fact that you tend to get at least three different programmes in any two-hour period - make listening to the radio fun, while listening to audio-books always strikes me as a bit of a chore. (Mind you, if I get my timing wrong, and I find myself stuck with The Navy Lark or Arthur Smith, it's straight over to Radio 3.)

If anyone else has found new ways of reading novels, do give us a shout.


  1. " intriguing way of consuming literature in a time-efficient manner".

    There is only one way. Read books. Time efficient?

    The paralympian discus thrower , M. Amis, in the Spectator 16th June 2012, has all sorts of interesting things to say viz "...when you read a poem you are communing with yourself in a deep way....why do you think they are on their phones all the time? They don't like being alone.".

    I am a great admirer of your blog. Some of your commenters are quite brilliant - for example, David Moss and SDG. They bestride the earth. But I am sure they will agree that this post is almost incomprehensible. What the hell is an iPhone, anyway?

  2. Au contraire, Admirer - you can consume literature by listening to somebody reading a book to you, either on the radio, or on DVD, or in the flesh. That's why I used the verb "consume" rather than "read". If you consider these methods of "reading" a book or a poem invalid, I presume you'd argue that reading a Shakespeare play on the page rather than seeing it performed would also be invalid on the basis that there is only one to "consume" plays - i.e. see them performed by actors on a stage.

    iPhones are Apple's version of SmartPhones. SmartPhones are the latest generation of mobile phones. Mobile phones are like old-fashioned telephones, only they aren't attached to anything, and you can take them with you when you leave the house. Telephones are devices which allow people to speak to each other without having to be in the same room or building or city or country.

    Being efficient with my time time doesn't matter that much to me any longer, as I'm retired - I can read books whenever the hell I feel like it. But for people who work for a living and have young families and a social life etc., opportunities for reading are pretty limited - being able to enjoy classic novels while commuting strikes me as very much A GOOD THING.

    And if you're so contemptuous of the benefits of modern technology - why are you using a computer?

  3. "...enjoy classic novels while commuting strikes me as very much A GOOD THING". does that work?

    1. Well, if you travel by train or bus, you read a physical book or an ebook on iPad or Kindle while doing so. If you drive or cycle, you listen to an audiobook. I think that's how it works.

  4. The only proper way for 19th century Cuban strap-hangers to consume great literature was, I understand, to have an actor read Romeo and Juliet or The Count of Montecristoout loud to them while rolling cigars between their thighs.

    1. Actually, that would be a lot better than those dreary buskers who used to slink on to the tube and murder "Streets of London" in my strap-hanging days. Or those gypsy women who'd scuttle on board with their kids in tow and tunelessly wail what was presumably a tale of low-life misery. And anything would be better than anyone playing bebop on an alto sax at tube stations.