Audiobook Highlights

Anyone can read a book aloud using their normal voice. But one of the pleasures, and challenges, of audiobook narration is coming up with distinctive voices for each character—what Dickens called “doing the Police in different voices.” When done right, these voices enliven the narrative and make it easier for audiences to follow since they can instantly tell who’s speaking. Skilled voice actors convey enormous amounts of information through speech.

Crafting unique voices is especially impressive when one considers just how many characters there are in some of our most beloved novels. The Dickens novel quoted above has at least 36, at a conservative estimate, and others more than that. The Harry Potter books forced Jim Dale to come up with 134 different voices, I’m told, and A Game of Thrones took 224 (though complaints about characters switching accents midway through the books suggest there may be a ceiling). How do narrators keep all these voices straight?


Tania Rodrigues narrating

Tania Rodrigues (front) and Clare Corbett in the studio. Credit: Fabio De Paola/The Guardian.

Every narrator has their preferred system. Still, most make extensive notes before entering the studio. (Narrators have all heard about unprepared readers learning about a character’s foreign accent on p. 632.) Doing your homework ensures that characters speak in an appropriate accent. “I’d never randomly give someone a Birmingham accent if it wasn’t in there,” says Tania Rodrigues, who has narrated works by Kiran Desai, David Mitchell, Arundhati Roy, Kamila Shamsie, Jeanette Winterson, and numerous others. Like many narrators, she turns the novel into a script: “For fiction, I’ll mark up all the characters’ speeches, so it becomes like a script for me.” Overlaying the script with colored highlights makes it is easy to tell at a glance who is speaking. “I colour code them so when you’ve got conversations you know who’s speaking when,” explains Tania. The pages of her script are certainly more dazzling than the average book’s pages. So what does an audiobook narrator’s script actually look like?

Here’s a case where showing is definitely better than telling. Tania has generously agreed to share one of her scripts with the Audiobook History blog. See for yourself how a veteran narrator navigates her way through a crowded cast of characters in the following excerpt taken from Judith Eagle’s The Secret Starling:



Highlighted pages from Judith Eagle’s The Secret Starling. Reprinted with kind permission from Judith Eagle and Tania Rodrigues.


Credit: The quotations above were taken from Tim Dowling, “‘Your Throat Hurts. Your Brain Hurts’: The Secret Life of the Audiobook Star,” Guardian (November 16, 2019),


Britain’s First Talking Book: An Update

What’s the first talking book in Britain? The plot thickens.

As a previous post explains, I’ve never been able to confirm with 100% certainty whether Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon was the first book recorded in Britain. Here’s what we do know: these were the first two titles recorded by the Talking Book Library founded by the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) and Blind Veterans UK. We also know (thanks to Ian Fraser) that a man named Anthony McDonald recorded the first talking book; and also that McDonald is the narrator of the Conrad disc. This led me to believe that the UK’s first talking book might be Conrad since there was no record of who narrated Christie’s novel. A few early recordings of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd do exist, but they were made after 1935 and not read by anyone associated with the original talking book studio.

But we now know who narrated Christie’s novel too. Her book is read by no other than – drum roll, please – Anthony McDonald. Yep, the same narrator who did the Conrad album. This is confirmed by an old US talking book catalog that I happened to be leafing through yesterday afternoon.

Catalog 1

What’s a British disc doing in a US catalog? Well, in the early days, America and Britain shared recordings in order to keep down costs (recorded books were expensive as heck to make) and to build up their inventories as rapidly as possible. Hence, the US catalog lists the 1935 British recording of Christie’s novel in its catalog, which describes the narrative as an “orthodox detective story, murder, inquest, and suspicion falling on every one in turn.”

Murder of Roger Ackroyd entry

It’s a relief to know with certainty who narrated the Christie album. Unfortunately, that still means either Christie or Conrad could be the UK’s first talking book. Although I’ve leaned toward Conrad since discovering McDonald to be its narrator, I’m now leaning back toward Christie since he did that one too. Most of the circumstantial evidence points that way. So there you have it: Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is (probably!) the UK’s first talking book. Maybe one day we’ll get to hear what those records sound like.

Voices on Vinyl

Working on audiobooks has brought me into contact with Greg Gatenby, who served as the Artistic Director of the readings that took place at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre from 1974 to 2003. During that time, he hosted over 10,000 readings by 4,000+ writers. Fortunately for those of us who missed the live shows, Gatenby recorded most of them.

gg2© Open Book Toronto

Harbourfront hosted many of the world’s leading authors. Gatenby recalls persuading William Golding, Doris Lessing, and John le Carré to give the first readings of their lives on his stage. Audiobook buffs will be especially interested to hear that he interviewed the founders of Caedmon Records, Barbara Holdridge and Marianne Mantell, on the company’s fiftieth anniversary as part of the International Festival of Authors. Another highlight of Gatenby’s career was hosting poet John Malcolm Brinnin, who first brought Dylan Thomas to the US (as described in Dylan Thomas in America) and oversaw the famed reading series taking place at New York City’s 92nd Street Y.

Gatenby’s interest in hearing authors began at a NYC used book shop with the serendipitous encounter of an EM Forster record. It sounds to me like the best five bucks he ever spent. Hearing Forster’s voice made him wonder what other vinyl voices were out there.



Talent scouting missions for Harbourfront provided opportunities to scour used record shops in towns across North America in search of literary spoken word recordings. He collected any audio with a writer’s voice. Most of the records in his collection feature writers reading and/or discussing their work. By the time he sold his collection to the University of Toronto, he had compiled one of the world’s largest private collections of literary spoken word recordings (about 1,800 records).

Gatenby has generously agreed to share his “Checklist of Authors’ Voices on Vinyl.” This is an annotated list of his collection of recordings of author’s voices, with a number of personal comments and anecdotes thrown into the mix.

Here’s a copy of the checklist: greg-gatenby-checklist-of-author-voices-on-vinyl

(Posted with permission of Greg Gatenby.)

Another Historic Talking Book Found


More good news: another one of the first talking books recorded in Britain has turned up! As I wrote in my last post, I’ve spent the past few years trying to find surviving copies of the earliest books recorded by the Royal National Institute of Blind People for the Talking Book Library in 1935. The first three were Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon, Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and The Gospel According to St. John. A record collector in Canada contacted me a few weeks ago to let me know that he owned all four discs of the Conrad album. And now, in response to that re-discovery’s press coverage, a British collector informs me that he has The Gospel According to St. John. It’s a miracle!

Adrian Hindle-Briscall emailed me after reading about the Conrad discs in The Times to let me know that he owns the first of three discs in the St. John set. Apparently he bought the record many decades ago at the old Gramophone Exchange in Wardour Street. You can listen to a recording of the disc on Hindle-Briscall’s website:

The narrator is Stuart Hibberd, one of the first professional announcers at the BBC, where he read the news and presented cultural events. His received pronunciation was typical of announcers at the time. In “This—Is London…” (1950), a diary covering 25 years (1924-1949) of working for the BBC as its Chief Announcer, Hibberd recalls meeting with Ian Fraser, the Chairman of Blind Veterans UK (then St. Dunstan’s) and a key figure in establishing the Talking Book Library, to discuss recording the Bible:

“1935: On 31st October I went to have tea at St. Dunstan’s with Sir Ian and Lady Fraser to discuss the Talking Book, recordings of speech reproduced on slow-running discs, continuing for half an hour before any change of record is necessary, an invaluable aid for blind people, and an invention which has since proved very useful to us from a recording point of view.” (119-120)


Fraser told Hibberd that he wanted experienced broadcasting voices to narrate the talking books and asked him to read portions of the New Testament. It was a good choice: Hibberd was not only an experienced speaker but had also thought a great deal about adapting printed narratives into sound, as he explains:

“The problem of writing for the voice and thinking in terms of the spoken word, as distinct from the printed page, has been with us almost since broadcasting began in this country. It was soon realised that a special technique would have to be developed, as what was required was shorter sentences than when writing for the eye and the use of as much colloquial English as possible. This was made clear when some well-known scenes from Dickens were broadcast in 1924.” (301)



The Bible is the most popular talking book ever recorded (the Book of Talking Books, as I like to say). The Gospel of John was particularly relevant for its scene of Jesus healing a blind man and thereby turning darkness into light. The British & Foreign Bible Society paid to have this section of the Bible recorded before any others because of its ties to the Venerable Bede, whose 1200th anniversary took place the same year as the opening of the Talking Book Library. The Society went on to pay for the other Gospels to be recorded by Hibberd too.

Let’s hope more such finds are to come. Dare I hope that the Agatha Christie records will turn up one day?


Britain’s First Talking Book


Good news for audiophiles: one of the oldest—maybe the oldest—set of talking book recordings made in Britain has been found.

I’ve spent the past few years searching for the first records made by the Royal National Institute of Blind People’s Talking Book Library in 1935. The first titles to be recorded were Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon, Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and the Bible (The Gospel According to St. John). They were made on 12-inch discs that played at a rate of 24 revolutions per minute (RPM), much slower than the standard rate of 78 rpm used for music records at the time (long-playing records would not reach the commercial market until 1948). This enabled the RNIB to fit an average-sized novel onto about 10 discs. These records are among the world’s first audiobooks (a term that didn’t come into use until the 1990s) as well as a valuable part of the nation’s cultural heritage.

Unfortunately, most of the earliest talking book records have been lost or destroyed. I’ve never been able to find any surviving copies of the first five titles made for the Talking Book Library (the other two were Axel Munthe’s The Story of San Michele and William Gore’s There’s Death in the Churchyard). Talking book records were made of shellac and therefore fragile; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come across shattered pieces of a disc. Heartbreaking!

The RNIB donated all of its historic recordings to the British Library’s Sound Archive a number of years ago for safekeeping. When I began writing my history of audiobooks, however, I was surprised at how few of the initial titles remained. For example, none of the recordings made during the Talking Book Library’s first year could be found on the shelves. The RNIB’s website featured an early recording of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd that turned out to have been made at least a decade later (many of the initial titles were re-recorded to improve quality since sound technology had improved dramatically by then). What happened to all of the early recordings?

I would spend the next few years poking around archives, corresponding with librarians, speaking to blind patrons, phoning vintage record collectors, and pursuing various other leads in search of the missing records. There were minor victories: the RNIB’s dedicated librarians found a copy of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford that was made in 1936, a year after the library opened. We were getting closer. Then, with the invaluable assistance of the British Library’s sound curators, I was able to figure out where the records were manufactured.

The titles had been recorded at a studio in Regent’s Park. But, in order to reduce costs, the studio then sent off the master discs to be pressed by major record labels like Decca and HMV. This led me to the EMI Group Archive Trust in Hayes, Middlesex (one of the most fascinating heritage collections I’ve ever encountered, incidentally), whose staff were able to locate a single disc from the set containing William Makepeace Thackeray’s The History of Henry Esmond—by my reckoning, the sixth title to be recorded in Britain. Closer still!


It was reassuring to know that at least two of Britain’s initial batch of talking book records still existed—or at least parts of them. But there was still no sign of the other records. No one I spoke to or corresponded with knew anything about them. My advertisements in places like the City of London Phonograph and Gramophone Society newsletter and Association for Recorded Sound Collections email discussion list went unanswered. I’d all but given up hope.

Then came the lucky break. Since 2013, I’d been corresponding with a vintage record collector in Canada named Mike Dicecco about his unique collection of discs that play at unusual speeds. I got in touch with him after coming across his fascinating account of 16 rpm records in the Antique Phonograph News. These records were commercially available for a brief period around the 1950s and feature in my history of audiobooks. But I didn’t realize that Mike also had 24 rpm records made for blind people. After reading a journal article I’d written about the history of Britain’s Talking Book Library, he sent me a list of the titles in his collection. I nearly jumped out of my socks when I saw Conrad’s name!

It’s extremely likely that Conrad’s Typhoon was the first talking book made in Britain. It’s widely believed that the first one was Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd but, as I note in my book, I’ve never been able to confirm with certainty whether the first recording was Conrad or Christie. What I do know is that Anthony McDonald narrated the first talking book ever made (Blind Veterans UK’s Captain Ian Fraser, who oversaw the initial recording sessions, states this unequivocally). The fact that McDonald narrates the Conrad records makes me suspect that this is Britain’s first talking book; the Conrad material (the last disc contains an excerpt from the memoir The Mirror of the Sea) was also thought to be out of copyright, which was an important factor in choosing the initial lineup. It’s possible that McDonald also narrated the Christie records (we don’t know who did), in which case the mystery will remain unsolved. But, for now, Conrad’s the frontrunner.

Either way, I’m thrilled we’ve been able to preserve at least one of the first two talking books made in Britain. Mike has generously agreed to provide the British Library with a full recording in order to ensure that the album is not lost to posterity (again).

You can hear a short clip from Typhoon played on BBC Radio 4’s “World at One” (starting at 44.00).

You can also read a letter written by Fraser about the recording:


The album’s discovery in Canada makes the story all the more intriguing. How did it get there? My search was limited to the UK and US as the most obvious destinations. It seemed unlikely to me that fragile shellac records that couldn’t survive in the UK would be able to withstand the strains of a transatlantic journey. My best guess is that a veteran carried the records back to Canada with him. As I explain in my book, the RNIB’s Talking Book Library had been started for blinded soldiers of the First World War, and the technology was eventually shared with Commonwealth countries such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and India. What I love best about this story: Conrad’s Typhoon tells the story of a ship’s safe passage through a perilous storm. How fitting that the records themselves survived the long voyage.

The remarkable find of Conrad’s Typhoon after all these years now gives me hope that other recordings will turn up too. If anyone comes across an old record in their attic, especially one with braille on the label, then please contact me immediately!

You can read news coverage of the discovery here:

“Unique copy of first full-length audio book found in Canada” (Guardian)

“World’s first audiobook tells its tale again” (The Times)

“Long-lost audiobook – one of the earliest ever published – discovered in Canada” (Los Angeles Times)

You can hear me talk about the recording here:

“Hear what may be the first full-length audio book, found in Canada” (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation)

Now Out: The Untold Story of the Talking Book


Fans of this blog might be interested to know that my history of recorded literature is now available. Thanks for your patience, everyone!

Here’s a link to The Untold Story of the Talking Book.

And before you ask, Yes! There’s an audiobook version too (read by the talented Jim Denison).


A brief description of what the book’s about:

Histories of the book often move straight from the codex to the digital screen. Left out of that familiar account are nearly 150 years of audio recordings. Recounting the fascinating history of audio-recorded literature, Matthew Rubery traces the path of innovation from Edison’s recitation of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” for his tinfoil phonograph in 1877, to the first novel-length talking books made for blinded World War I veterans, to today’s billion-dollar audiobook industry.

The Untold Story of the Talking Book focuses on the social impact of audiobooks, not just the technological history, in telling a story of surprising and impassioned conflicts: from controversies over which books the Library of Congress selected to become talking books—yes to Kipling, no to Flaubert—to debates about what defines a reader. Delving into the vexed relationship between spoken and printed texts, Rubery argues that storytelling can be just as engaging with the ears as with the eyes, and that audiobooks deserve to be taken seriously. They are not mere derivatives of printed books but their own form of entertainment.

We have come a long way from the era of sound recorded on wax cylinders, when people imagined one day hearing entire novels on mini-phonographs tucked inside their hats. Rubery tells the untold story of this incredible evolution and, in doing so, breaks from convention by treating audiobooks as a distinctively modern art form that has profoundly influenced the way we read.

This blog will continue to be updated with audiobook news in the days to come.



The Untold Story of the Talking Book

Catalog Cover Photo

Anyone interested in the history of audiobooks can get a sneak preview of my forthcoming book here:

Here’s a brief excerpt from HUP’s website:

“Histories of the book often move straight from the codex to the digital screen. Left out of that familiar account is nearly 150 years of audio recordings. Recounting the fascinating history of audio-recorded literature, Matthew Rubery traces the path of innovation from Edison’s recitation of ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ for his tinfoil phonograph in 1877, to the first novel-length talking books made for blinded World War I veterans, to today’s billion-dollar audiobook industry.”

Visit the website for a longer description, blurbs, etc. The book should be available sometime in November.

“How We Read” Exhibition Now Online

Front of RNIB record of Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford

Last year Dr Heather Tilley and I organized a public exhibition titled “How We Read: A Sensory History of Books for Blind People.”

“How We Read” explores the history of reading technologies that have been designed for blind people over the past two centuries. The exhibition begins with the development of embossed literature at the start of the nineteenth century, examines innovations in sound and optical character recognition scanning devices during the twentieth century, and reflects on the status of today’s assistive technologies. From raised print to talking books and optophones, such devices have made reading material accessible to many thousands of visually disabled readers in Britain.

The exhibition is now online. Videos, photos, and sound recordings can all be found under the website’s “Gallery” tab.

Visitors to this blog will be especially interested in the section on “Talking Books.” There, you can listen to excerpts from books recorded between 1935 and 1998:

1. William Makepeace Thackeray, The History of Henry Esmond

2. Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford (read by Anthony McDonald)

3. Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford (read by Marjorie Anderson)

4. Charles Lever, Harry Lorrequer

5. Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (read by Laidman Browne)

6. Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (read by Christopher Oxford)

7. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (read by Emilia Fox)

8. Thomas Hughes, Tom Brown’s Schooldays (read by Peter Gray)

9. Arthur Conan Doyle, The Return of Sherlock Holmes (read by Peter Cushing)

10. Wilbert Awdry, Thomas the Tank Engine (read by Andrew Timothy)

11. Roald Dahl, James and the Giant Peach (read by Roald Dahl)

12. Sue Townsend, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole (read by Gretel Davis)

13. Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting (read by multiple narrators – WARNING: contains profanity)

14. J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (read by Stephen Fry)

The following link will take you to the “How We Read” exhibition and all of the recordings:

Pronunciation Guides

Simon Vance reading in the studio

One thing separating professional voice actors from the amateurs is the amount of preparation time they put into a book. There are occasional exceptions like Simon Vance who can deliver virtuoso performances despite never reading books in advance (he describes himself as “an excellent sight reader” who honed his skills while receiving scripts at short notice as a BBC news reader). But for every Simon Vance there are actors like Brad Pitt whose mispronunciations might have been avoided with a bit of prep time. (See “Read Me a Story, Brad Pitt: When Audiobook Casting Goes Terribly Wrong.”)

Publishers often prepare pronunciation guides to help narrators. Some of the most elaborate notes I’ve come across have been prepared by talking book studios, which go to great lengths to ensure that blind audiences have access to accurate recordings of printed books. These reports are often dozens of pages long.

The following set of guidance notes was prepared by Britain’s Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) for Dorothy Dunnett’s Gemini. The notes contain everything a narrator needs to know in order to read the book aloud.

Here are a few of the key questions:

What languages, British dialects, and foreign accents are spoken?

Who tells the story: a man or a woman? Approximately how old are they? Where are they from? What do they sound like?

Is the novel told in first-person?

Where is the book set?

Does the book contain sex, profanity, violence, or otherwise “disturbing” elements?

There are also useful notes about how other characters sound and the role played by various accents throughout the story. The bulk of the report is a pronunciation guide to names, technical terms, and otherwise tricky words.

What’s immediately clear from looking at all 18 pages of the report is how much work has gone into the recording even before the first word has been spoken. Brad Pitt might want to hire the report’s author if he decides to record another book.

Have a look for yourself. The full report is available here: Gemini Pronunciation Guide [PDF]

Credit: My thanks to Dave Thorpe for sharing the notes with me.