Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Kindle’s Speech

I had four hours of driving to do on Friday, two hours to a conference in Tulsa and two hours back home to Norman. A perfect opportunity to listen to part of a book, preferably a long book. I have enough margin built up in my schedule this year to read something off-list, so I thought I’d start Stephen King’s 11/22/63. I bought the Kindle version earlier this year, and I planned to while away those four hours by letting the Kindle read to me.

Yeah, I know. The Kindle’s text-to-speech function is a far cry from, for instance, listening to Jeremy Irons read Brideshead or Bill Bryson reading one of his own travel books. But the robotic cadence of Amazon’s wonderbox actually works for me in short stretches – say, two hours to Tulsa and then two hours back. I knew my Kindle Fire didn’t have text-to-speech, but I’ve done this before: transfer the book to the old Kindle and press the magic button. So the day before the conference, I got on the Amazon site, delivered King to the old Kindle, pressed the button to try it out and heard . . . nothing. Silence.

Now this should come as no surprise from a man who gives himself a ten-year- reading schedule and then sticks to it, but it’s hard for me to change plans. I’d had King’s time-traveling thriller in my mental agenda for several days. I can see the calendar in my head now, and there the book sits, in the sixth box of the week, waving to me and smiling, acknowledging our deal to start our acquaintance on precisely that day. I hated to disappoint it. But I had no choice. The Kindle wouldn’t read it to me. I wasn’t sure why, but there it was, and there was nothing I could do about it. I apologized and changed my plan: I’d listen to McCullough’s Mornings on Horseback instead. So I got it on the old Kindle, but text-to-speech was grayed out on it, too.

Now I saw a clear pattern, so I looked it up. The young people use a thing called Google these days, and I thought I’d try it out. Sure enough, lots of people were complaining online that they couldn’t listen to recent bestsellers, like the latest Stephen King or David McCullough. As it turns out, the most prominent publishers have decided they don’t like Kindle’s text-to-speech function because they’re afraid of losing audiobook sales. Really?! If I wanted the audiobook, I would have purchased the audiobook. But I didn’t. I wanted a book to read with my eyes, and I wanted a robot to read six percent of it to me while driving for a few hours on I-44. If someone wants to hear the whole book, she’s going to spend her fifteen dollars on a recording of a living human actually reading, and she’s not going to purchase a black-and-white version. If someone like me prefers to read but wants the audio only occasionally to relieve some boredom, he’s going to pay the publisher for the visual copy. He’s not going to pay twice just for a few minutes of weird convenience; if the audio isn’t available, he’s just going to go to another book.

And that’s just what I did. I listened to half of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain instead . The twelfth-century classic was free on the internet, so I guess no publisher cared.

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