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Listening as reading

Alan Flurry

Jamie Kreiner, professor of history and associate dean in the Franklin College, describes in her new book, “The Wandering Mind,” how monks of Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages (around A.D. 300 to 900) struggled with focusing their attention. The highly-acclaimed book has just been introduced in an audio format, which brings the author and her subject full circle. Kreiner relates the experience in this Q & A.


Alan Flurry: You went to a studio and basically read your book.

Jamie Kreiner: Yes, I worked with a producer – I’m in a little recording booth, my book is in front of me on an iPad, and I’ve got headphones on to hear from the producer who is working just outside the booth.

AF: You’ve done readings before but this is reading for posterity in a way – how do you put the right pauses and emphases?

JK: I imagined that I was talking to a group of people who cared about the subject but didn’t know a lot about it. I was at this conference in Berlin last summer, among a small of group of people who work on cognitive practices, though most were not medievalists, and imagining a specific group helped a lot.

On the recommendation of the studio, I did a couple of practice recordings beforehand and sent them to some friends, thinking of different audiences each time, and I asked them to pick the one they thought sounded most tolerable. If you’ve ever listed to an audiobook where the voice is weird, it can be… distracting. So, I wanted to make sure that I was not being that voice.

So, you invented multiple different tones so you could…

Yeah, in one practice take I imagined I was talking to one particular person, in another it was a different person, and then third was that group.

That’s smart – Did they suggest that?

I just did it because it’s easier to imagine yourself speaking in a familiar scenario than it is to craft a whole character or persona from scratch. And when I went back to do pickups in late January, the producer said it can take a while for a narrator to recapture the voice that they used when they did the initial full recording — but we kind of blazed through it. I don’t know if that’s because I had this same group in mind, but he also said it’s harder when you’re not the author of your own book.

That makes sense

Because then maybe you’re doing a character and you’ve forgotten what the character was like! There was about a week between the initial recording, which took us about 13 hours, and then the pickups ended up only taking around two hours.

That’s still close in time though. So, 13 hours over three days?

Two. We had originally scheduled three full days to do it.  The producer said it helps that I came prepared, which I think just meant that I had read the text once already in full.

Out loud?

More like sotto voce. I had also written any tricky pronunciations in the margins, and I brought my notes for those. 

The studio was in Atlanta?

Yes, TYDEF Studios. It’s the only Black-owned audiobook production company in the country.

So exclusively audiobooks.

Yes. Including the Grammy-nominated spoken word album by Amanda Gorman.

So, go back little bit – when did you know that you were going to record the audio version of your book?

I think I found out in December. I realized the audiobooks I’ve liked best were narrated by the authors themselves – Michael Pollan, or Hua Hsu, or Ed Yong. And I had a friend who was kind of goading me – you should narrate your own book – and I was like no way, not in a million years, but… my agent was like, yeah, the audiobook publisher would consider it

So, your book has gotten a lot of attention so far, from the popular media.

Yes, I think that’s just the good work of Liveright/Norton’s publicity team.

Well sure, we can understand. But what do you think about that? What do you think about your scholarship venturing out into fields unknown, as far as audience goes?

Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages aren’t very well represented in popular culture, so it’s really cool to see them on the map a bit more.

It is literally called the Dark Ages.

I had this kind of strange moment when I was in the recording studio because although audiobooks are a relatively new technology, it’s so much like how monks engaged with their books all the time. Most of them read by listening, while they ate or worked or just sat around. In a way, they always had audiobooks! 

It seems appropriate that a book about monks is something that readers can listen to.

It’s an old idea in a new form.



The audio version of Kreiner’s book “The Wandering Mind” is available through Audible and other platforms.

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