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Getting my Mac to read to me

On Tuesday, I go in for long-scheduled retinal surgery. Based on the last time I had this procedure, reading will be impossible for roughly four weeks and painful for another month after that. So I’m taking August off, shutting off the computer and spending a month mostly offline.

This leads to very different time off than friends, like Aaron, who’ve simply turned off the net. While there’s a ceiling high pile of books I’d like to read, I don’t think that’s going to be the focus of the next month. Last year, I spent my convalescence playing Grand Theft Auto. (The doctor’s recommendation for recovery from this procedure is to watch lots of television. By focusing on the glowy box, your eyes lock to a point 15 feet away… and that’s good, because eye motion is the enemy. Reading doesn’t work because your eyes scan across the screen. So GTA turns out to be good therapy.)

This year, I’m going to focus on painting the baby’s nursery. And I’m looking for good things to listen to while I work through a long list of household tasks. So I went online today and started looking for audio versions of the books in my bookpile. There’s good news and bad news.

The good news is for blind, dyslexic and other print-disabled people out there. You can find an amazing number of texts online through services like Bookshare. I looked at Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic first, but they use a DRM that works only on Windows PCs. Bookshare makes texts available in DAISY, an XML-based standard supported by several free readers and multiple platforms.

But you’re probably not going to start downloading audiobooks for your commute if you’re normally sighted. To sign up for Bookshare or any of these services, you need a note from a doctor, psychologist or reading specialist who can certify that you have a disability that prevents you from reading print. Fair enough – services like Bookshare take advantage of an exemption in US copyright law that allows transformative and derivative works to be provided to people with print disabilities. They could lose that exemption if they were offering services to people who are not disabled.

(Remember the controversy over whether Amazon’s Kindle 2 would allow you to listen to books? Amazon initially argued that text to speech wasn’t a performance or a derivative work and therefore was included within existing licenses of texts. The Authors Guild was concerned that this would damage audiobook sales, and demanded that Amazon disable the functionality on some texts. Their theory is that blind and disabled people should apply to have this feature enabled as they do with Bookshare – blind and disabled advocacy groups are now protesting the Author’s Guild’s position. And thus far, it looks like Amazon has backed down and will allow publishers to disable the functionality on a text-by-text basis.)

So I’ve asked Bookshare whether my weeks of recovery qualify me to use the service. In the meantime, I’m looking for other solutions. And the pickings are pretty slim. Yes, there’s lots of entertaining stuff available via Audible and iTunes… but basically none of the books in my “to read” pile. (Dozens of them, on the other hand, are in Bookshare.) And they’re not cheap. Yes, there are free audiobooks out there, but they’re not exactly contemporary titles… though I am looking forward to Chris Anderson’s new book Free (which exists as a free download) and to Cory Doctorow reading Alice in Wonderland.

So I’ve been queueing up essays I’ve been meaning to read, like Paul Collier’s “Development in Dangerous Places“. Text to speech on the Mac is pretty damned good these days. I’ve been cranking up the speed at which the computer reads, and I can now listen to an article in only about twice the time it takes me to read it on the screen. The only problem is that I want to be able to listen to these things while I’m painting, repairing the roof, driving or generally not using my laptop.

The hack I’m currently using works like this: I set up Audacity to record using the machine’s internal mic and disable hardware and software playback of audio. I run cable from my laptop’s headphone jack to its internal mic jack. I start recording in Audacity, select a passage of text in Firefox and press the keystroke I’ve set up to start Apple’s speech synthesis. (It’s under the Control Panel, under the “speech” icon, and it’s really worth exploring if you have any problems reading a screen.) My mac reads to itself and records the track in Audacity, which I can then trim and save as an mp3, downloading it onto my phone to be heard later.

It’s not a bad system, but it’s far from perfect. It takes about 20 minutes to record an article like Collier’s, using speech synthesis on one of its fastest settings, and a few minutes more to encode it as an mp3. While it’s going on, the processors on my Mac are pretty stressed out, and I can’t run any other audio on the device.

What I really want is the ability to take an arbitrary text or HTML file and, from the Mac command line, turn it into an mp3 file. This should, technically, be possible. There’s a shell command – “say” – that generates .aiff files from text files using Mac’s speech synthesis. But it won’t handle files much longer than a few sentences long – it’s basically useless for what I’m trying to do. If anyone has ideas on how to hack it so that it will accept a couple dozen K of text… or other ideas for synthesis from text files and webpages to mp3 files… I’d be very grateful for the input.

On the list of things that doesn’t work, by the way, is asking friends to read to you. I’m grateful to the half dozen friends who read texts to me the last time I had to take time off from reading. It’s a lovely gesture, and a very pleasant way to spend time with people. But it’s a horribly inefficient way to read text, and frankly, it’s not fair to ask friends to read the thousands of pages I’d like to get through this next month.

All ideas welcome… though I can only read them on screen for the next four days or so…

11 thoughts on “Getting my Mac to read to me”

  1. Great find, Jesse. Clipboard to MP3, a Mac ap available at manythings.org/mac, does a great job of creating these files from your clipboard, running them in the background, and depositing them into iTunes. Exactly what I was looking for – thank you.

  2. due to a neck injury i can’t really read books for very long, so the text-to-speech feature on my mac (and audiobooks from the lib, etc) have become my new form of literacy. i’ve never sought any kind of disability status- i think this is kind of under the radar.

    i mostly treat my laptop like a giant mp3 player, but eventually that will get old.

    i will be trying this with you, i suspect.

  3. HI Ethan. Rather than using Audacity (a fine program) and digital-analog-digital conversion via hardware jacks, have you ever tried Audio Hijack Pro from Rogue Amoeba? It will create a digital file from any Mac application with an audio component (including, I’m sure, “say”), which you can then playback via iTunes, etc.

  4. Hi Ethan,

    You can also whip something up in the Automator application. If you paste the text you want into a textedit document, you can set up a workflow that looks like this:
    Ask for Finder Items
    Get contents of TextEdit Document
    Text to Audio File

    That spits out a .aiff sound file, but you can add
    Import Audio Files

    To get iTunes to take it in and convert it to mp3 .

    But Clipboard to MP3 looks hard to argue with!

  5. I was going to suggest the same thing as Joe. Automator is the right move for recording audiobooks.

    You could also start practicing VoiceOver the built-in screen reader on Mac OS X. Automator is the better solution for audiobooks, but VoiceOver would allow you to check your email and news feeds without using your eyes. To learn the basics, turn on VoiceOver with Cmd+F5, and launch the tutorial with Ctrl+Opt+Cmd+F8.

    Good luck with your surgery.

  6. Thanks, Ed. You site is very unclear on that point. When you sign up, you’re given the opportunity to download titles in a format not supported on the Mac. Your FAQ apologizes for the fact that RFBD titles aren’t supported on the Mac. So you can understand why I might be confused.

  7. Diehl Mackey-Pyfer

    Thanks for raising these issues!! I’m interested in being able to listen to one thing while reading or looking at something else. . .and read your article and comments with great interest. Good luck on your coming surgery and recovery!!!

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