Cronon the Storyteller, part 2: What about the Storylistener?

Back in October, William Cronon fretted that today’s readers, especially younger readers, may lack the attention span to read book-length accounts of the past, whether they are printed on paper or displayed on a screen.

As he put it,

the long arguments and narratives on which the best history writing has always depended require many pages—many screens—to be absorbed, understood, and appreciated. More important still, they require well-stocked minds with the patience and discipline to pay attention for many hours to complicated webs of actors and actions, causes and effects, events and contexts, ideas and meanings, without which we cannot hope to make sense of what happened in the past or why it mattered. Good history needs time and space to be grasped in all its richness. If journal articles aren’t long enough to do the job, then what are we to do if blogs and text messages and tweets are the media our audiences prefer to read? . . . If history as we know it is to survive, it is these we most need to resist as we practice and defend long, slow, thoughtful reading.

In his recent AHA presidential address, Cronon elaborated on this theme, telling the story of meeting a young man in Florida who lamented that he would never be able to read Cronon’s forthcoming work on Portage, Wisconsin–estimated to come in at around 500 pages–since he had never attempted to read something that long. (Start at minute 22 on the AHA videorecording of the talk.)

Cronon leaves the story there, but I think I might have had a different response to that young man. Have you tried an audiobook?

Amid all the talk of the digital humanities and digital history providing new avenues for scholarship, I haven’t, um, heard much about audiobooks. Though audiobooks predate the digital revolution,—the industry leader—reports that “new technology has enabled the repositioning of audiobooks from a sleepy, under-marketed product, with limited selection and forbidding prices, to a habit embraced by millions.” And history is the fifth-most popular genre, interesting 35 percent of listeners. So could we please include audiobooks in the digital history revolution?

I confess that listening to a serious work of history, rather than reading it, sometimes feels like cheating. If scholars fetishize print over electronic text, we fetishize text over voice even more.

But the fact remains that audiobooks let me learn things while performing all kids of chores that would otherwise count as dead time, and they are especially good for long reads. Cronon is right that many folks lack the many hours it takes to read a book like Anna Karenina (which I read on my old Palm Tungsten, but never mind). But might not some of those folks have long commutes by car or transit, or long hours doing household chores? Listen an hour a day, and you’ll be done in just over a month!

Not that I would start Cronon’s semi-literate Floridian with Tolstoy. If I were trying to work him toward reading a long environmental history, I’d suggest 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created (17 hrs and 51 mins). Or if so much nonfiction seems daunting, how about Lonesome Dove (36 hrs and 11 mins)? That story’s so gripping, it’s easier to finish than to abandon. And at the heart, it’s a story of some historical actors moving a species into a new ecosystem.

If Cronon’s Floridian finished one of those, he’d have gotten through the equivalent of 560 or 864 pages respectively. And then he might be ready to read a book that long, or at least lobby Cronon’s publisher for an audioversion of the Portage book.

I have no beef with those who argue that university historians could use outlets for works shorter than the typical book. But I agree with Cronon that it would be nice to be able to reach a broad public with stories that might take a couple hundred thousand words to tell in full.

The good news is that some university historians are already doing this. For those interested in their work, I offer A History Professor’s Guide to