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Reading Sounds

Closed-Captioned Media and Popular Culture

Reading Sounds

Closed-Captioned Media and Popular Culture

Imagine a common movie scene: a hero confronts a villain. Captioning such a moment would at first glance seem as basic as transcribing the dialogue. But consider the choices involved: How do you convey the sarcasm in a comeback? Do you include a henchman’s muttering in the background? Does the villain emit a scream, a grunt, or a howl as he goes down? And how do you note a gunshot without spoiling the scene?

These are the choices closed captioners face every day. Captioners must decide whether and how to describe background noises, accents, laughter, musical cues, and even silences. When captioners describe a sound—or choose to ignore it—they are applying their own subjective interpretations to otherwise objective noises, creating meaning that does not necessarily exist in the soundtrack or the script.

Reading Sounds looks at closed-captioning as a potent source of meaning in rhetorical analysis. Through nine engrossing chapters, Sean Zdenek demonstrates how the choices captioners make affect the way deaf and hard of hearing viewers experience media. He draws on hundreds of real-life examples, as well as interviews with both professional captioners and regular viewers of closed captioning. Zdenek’s analysis is an engrossing look at how we make the audible visible, one that proves that better standards for closed captioning create a better entertainment experience for all viewers.

See a website for the book.

368 pages | 28 halftones, 18 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2015

Disability Studies

Media Studies

Rhetoric and Communication


"Powerful. . . . Reading Sounds is clearly written and enjoyable. Commanding attention from sentence one, Zdenek builds a compelling argument not just that captions are interesting but also that captioners engage in significant rhetorical work."

Gregory Zobel | Technical Communication

"Zdenek has not only broken new ground in the rhetorical analysis of closed captioning, he has also left no stone unturned in dissecting the different ways that captioners make rhetorical choices in describing sound—and more specifically, nonspeech sound—in textual form in television shows and movies. He has delivered a panoramic view of the rhetorical quality of closed captioning in popular media for scholars in technical communication, multimodal composition, disability studies, accessibility, and sound studies. Reading Sounds seems destined to be a foundational text that will be referenced by accessibility and caption scholars—starting with this reviewer—in the years to come."

Janine Butler | Rhetoric Review

“An authoritative, readable guide to closed captioning. . . . Enhanced by an ancillary website commenting on dozens of thoughtfully selected film clips, Reading Sounds amply demonstrates the relevance of closed captioning.”


"There's no book like this; plain and simple, it is one of the most original new books I’ve ever read. Zdenek’s work on the complexities, contradictions, and interpretive nuances of the art and technique of captioning video and sound addresses a critical and creative area with care and sensitivity. His writing style is sometimes clever but always clear and even elegant. What's more, the book is accessible to a wide range of audiences."

Brenda Brueggemann, University of Louisville

“This is a tremendously accessible book. Reading Sounds studies closed captioning in such a nuanced way that it should be required reading for anyone interested in the interface between technical communication or rhetoric and technology. Those who really care about how meaning is made through new media will want to read this book.”

Jay Dolmage, author of Disability Rhetoric

"In Reading Sounds, Zdenek carves out entirely new rhetorical terrain focused on close examination of video captioning. After reading this book—even if you don’t regularly make use of closed captions--you’ll never experience captions the same way again. Zdenek ranges broadly, addressing the complex decisions made by captioners, the depth of cultural experience and resources necessary to produce quality captions, and the ways that readers read and respond to captions. Bridging rhetoric studies, sound studies, and multimedia studies, Zdenek’s lively, accessible book creates a new vocabulary for thinking about the effects that captions have on the way we experience multimedia."

Stephanie Kerschbaum, University of Delaware

Table of Contents


1 A Rhetorical View of Captioning
2 Reading and Writing Captions
3 Context and Subjectivity in Sound Effects Captioning
4 Logocentrism
5 Captioned Irony
6 Captioned Silences and Ambient Sounds
7 Cultural Literacy, Sonic Allusions, and Series Awareness
8 In a Manner of Speaking
9 The Future of Closed Captioning


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