File this one under “Coolest Thing Ever,” with a cross-reference for “Take That iPod, iPad, Kindle, Nook and Reader.” In news that has me beaming from ear to ear, The Daily Telegraph reports that a new British audio journal called Underwood: Stories in Sound has begun releasing vinyl records featuring new short stories read aloud by the authors. At a time when mp3s rule the land and most publishers treat the short story like it is a devastatingly potent brand of commercial poison, Underwood founder Nathan Dunne has entered the literary marketplace with a product that is at once incredibly foolhardy and strikingly beautiful. The records, which will be released biannually in May and November, will feature two roughly 20-minute short stories (one per side). Much to the delight of record nerds everywhere, they will come housed in gorgeous gatefold sleeves featuring original artwork, and will be limited to pressings of 1,000 copies each. The first release features new stories by Toby Litt and Clare Wigfall and artwork by comic book artist Jordan Crane (that’s it up above).
The idea behind Underwood is to counteract the ubiquity of mp3s and podcasts and their routinely poor sound quality and tendency to encourage short attention spans. As audiophiles will be more than happy to tell you (usually whether you want to hear it or not) recordings on vinyl feature far superior sound quality to that of their digital counterparts. But far more interesting and important than the technicalities of analog vs. digital recording quality (many non- audio-obsessives can’t tell the difference anyway) is the conscious act of listening implied by the format.
Listening to an mp3 (or CD or cassette, for that matter) can be done pretty much anywhere, under any conditions. With the rise of the iPod and the e-reader, our listening material has the dangerous and unfortunate tendency to slip into the realm of background noise. On the train, in the car, at the gym, walking down the street, our “listening” habits are pretty grim. We seldom just sit and listen anymore. Our listening is almost always done to the accompaniment of some other aspect of our life. But given the thick, heavy, unwieldy nature of vinyl records and turntables (these tactile aspects being among the key charms of vinyl in this age of all things digital and essentially non-existent save for a few 0s and 1s) it is unlikely that most would do their listening anywhere other than at home, in front of the stereo. The act of physically putting on a record in a room and plopping down on a favorite chair or couch to simply listen is, at this point, practically a revolutionary act (though some might label it an old-fashioned or even Luddite endeavor, as if these were unspeakably dirty words). But there is nothing wrong with carving out some time alone in a room with a favorite author telling you a story. You need not feel guilty for neglecting the many invariably important tasks that are falling by the wayside during your 20-minute sojourn away from the world of people and things. You are in a way striking a tiny blow against the overwhelming tide of modern life and technology and silently supporting something “old-fashioned” that is worth keeping around. It used to be called listening.
With the media, gadget makers, publishers, and admittedly even those in the library world falling all over themselves of late to hype the latest, fastest, easiest, coolest new ways to hear and read books on your superslim, lightweight handheld device while at the same time making calls, organizing your calendar, downloading videos, updating your blog, taking photos of your friends and their gadgets looking back at you, slicing, dicing, and generally setting the world on fire with your up-to-the-minute technological awesomeness it’s nice to know that there is an alternative out there for those who want to genuinely engage with authors and literature in a quiet, focused, and intimate way. For more information on Underwood: Stories in Sound and their loving embrace of obsolescence, you can visit their website. And remember: vinyl nerds are people too.