Talking books: Stories with something to say

I have to hold my book an inch from my eye and try hard to hold the hot, spasming muscle. The exhaustion of this is like the deep fatigue drivers feel after being too long on the road. The ordinary effort of reading is, for me, a whole-body experience. My neck, shoulders and, finally, my lower back contract with pain. The legally blind know what it is to be old; even before the third grade I am hunched and shaking with effort, always on the verge of tears, seeing by approximation, craving a solid sentence. Then the words dissolve or run like ants.”
– from Planet of the Blind, by Stephen Kuusisto

It was years before Kuusisto discovered a service most CNIB clients tune into right away: talking books. Once registered with the CNIB, clients are entitled to withdraw books free of charge – tapes, actually – at any time from the CNIB library. “We produce almost anything that’s in print,” says Lynn Leith, manager of Audio Production at the CNIB in Toronto. That includes a list of popular Canadian magazines, including Maclean’s, which is done weekly, Reader’s Digest, Saturday Night, Canadian Geographic ando on.

Their focus is Canadian material, Leith says; for American titles, they turn to the U.S. Library of Congress Services for the Blind and Physically Handicapped: “We actually buy a large number of their titles. We buy submaster tapes, and put them onto cassette down in our duplication area.”

The CNIB also produces a list of new-book titles for its general reading collection, “so it’s like any lending library,” Leith says. “We have a book selection process, but we can’t possibly produce everything that comes into print in Canada, so we try to have a collection that’s as esoteric as any public library’s collection. We just don’t have as many titles.”

What they do have – or try to have – is whatever’s current and likely to be in high demand, including new titles by well-known Canadian authors. Upon request, they’ll also produce text books for students and teachers, often on highly technical subjects. “We produce Braille, and tactile,” Leith says, “raised drawings that are read tactually by people who can’t see an image. It could be a floor plan of a building in a hotel, but a lot of what we do with tactile is for textbooks. An economic text, for instance, [might be] filled with graphs or a math text filled with geometric shapes.”

On a lighter note, “there are the categories of literature our clients are very fond of,” Leith says: “Romances, biographies, fantasies, westerns are all very popular. And it’s possible that someone could have requested this,” she says, picking up a copy of T.S. White’s classic The Once and Future King, but it’s also possible that we could have looked at the fantasy titles we had, and said, ‘We’re missing a couple of really important books. This is one of them, and therefore we’ll add it.’ So, we look at the gaps in the collection as well when selecting titles.”

Once the book selection committee’s gone through all the review and bestseller lists, client requests and U.S. publication lists, it puts an order into the audio production department. The library and duplication and production centres are a sprawl of facilities at CNIB in Toronto. While most of the institute is set up geographically, with each division focusing specifically on the clients in its region, the CNIB library’s a national resource. “There’s only one CNIB library for the blind, and we serve out of this building here,” Leith says.

The recording studio is set up with nine sound-reduction booths where volunteer readers – teachers, actors, media professionals, engineers, computer programmers and other word lovers who pass a stringent audition – work in teams, each with an identical print copy. The person on the outside of the booth follows along in one copy to ensure that what goes on tape is exactly what’s written. “There are well over 300 volunteers in the program and six staff who audition potential volunteers, train them, provide direction, and prepare all the materials for recording,” Leith says.

Volunteers usually come in once a week, which means any one book is likely to be a chorus of different voices, as against the kind of books recorded by famous actors and sold in bookstores. Most of those are abridged versions, packed into standard 90-minute cassettes, whereas CNIB talking books are complete and unabridged – meaning some are 10 or more tapes long.

They’d be even longer, except the books are produced in a non-standard format, Leith says: “We use a four-track, half-speed system, so instead of getting an hour-and-a-half on one cassette, we get six hours on one cassette. Our philosophy is to provide to the blind and visually impaired people of Canada exactly what’s out there in print. I mean, if I wanted to read a book, I wouldn’t want to read somebody’s edited version.”

Because the cassettes won’t play in a standard cassette players, clients need a “phototrack-format” player, which is provided free of charge – thanks almost entirely to charitable donations, Leith says. “The library is a charitable organization. Each of the geographic divisions pays so much per library client in their area to help fund our service. They raise money through the United Way, personal donations – some may get government support, but it’s minimal. Most of it’s from fundraising.”

As the CNIB library moves into the 21st century, it’s faced with the expense of transferring outdated reel-to-reel master tapes and audiocassette dubs – some 20,000 titles, some of them crumbling with age – into digital formats that will withstand the rigors of time and travel. The dubbed cassettes subscribers receive do get damaged, Leith points out: “They go out via Canada Post and are stuffed into mailboxes where it’s 20-below or into those little boxes in the summer heat.”

Unfortunately, new technologies – digital audiotape (DAT) and sophisticated electronic text formats compatible with computers – don’t come cheap, but they do offer durability and superb technical advantages. For example, DAT book players are being developed in both Canada and Japan that will allow “readers” to skip backward and forward, from chapter to chapter, much like jumping from cut to cut on CD music players. There’s also work underway with an international consortium to develop a software system to produce DAT books on computers, rather than from open-reel tapes, Leith says, “because let’s face it, tape is dying.

“It will allow us to produce human voice digital audio linked to the text, which means a visually impaired person using one of these books on their computer will be able to do a word search to get to something in the text, then link to the human voice audio and listen to it in human voice. It’s very exciting.”