Audiobooks and the Return of Storytelling

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I’ve started looking forward to audiobook raves from the New York Times. A paper long associated with high-brows has unapologetically embraced the low-brow format in recent years. Now it’s TM Luhrmann’s turn to talk about how much she enjoys listening to books while gardening. Luhrmann, a professor of Anthropology at Stanford, vividly describes how her memories of books have become entangled with the outside world. Ferns that she planted while listening to The Great Gatsby, for example, bring to mind that novel’s climactic smash-up.

Luhrmann adds a bit of history about the long transition from orality to print and a few nods to the Bible. But really this column is a gush about how much she enjoys audiobooks, whether or not the Greeks and Romans did too. And gush on, I say. It’s wonderful to see audiobooks celebrated by this newspaper after decades of neglect.

Here’s a link to the full article: “Audiobooks and the Return of Storytelling.”

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The First Talking Books in Britain

First Talking Books Britain

People often ask me what the first talking books were to be recorded in Britain. The National Institute for the Blind and St. Dunstan’s didn’t have a very large budget when they started the talking book library in 1935. They could only afford to record one title per month since the average novel took up 8 discs with about a half-an-hour’s narration on each side. The Book Selection Committee decided that 75% of the first year’s catalog should be of permanent value and 25% set aside for popular taste. Choices were made on the basis of committee member recommendations; suggestions from correspondents; and lists of popular classics as well as best-sellers.

Here’s the list of books chosen for the first year’s program:

THE SCRIPTURES:

The Gospel According to St John

FICTION:

William Thackeray, Henry Esmond

Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Joseph Conrad, Typhoon

Stanley Weyman, Under the Red Robe

Denis Mackail, Greenery Street

Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

SHORT STORIES:

Anthology including Cyril McNeile (“Sapper”), HG Wells, Edgar Allan Poe, and others.

TRAVEL:

HV Morton, In the Steps of the Master

POETRY:

Anthology including Shakespeare and other famous poets

BIOGRAPHY AND AUTOBIOGRAPHY:

James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson

Axel Munthe, The Story of San Michele

HISTORY:

Winston Churchill, The World Crisis, 1911-18

ALTERNATIVE FICTION:

William Gore, Death in the Churchyard

Anthony Hope, The Prisoner of Zenda

There’s a photo of the original list at the top of this post. The list is held in the archives of the Royal National Institute for Blind People (RNIB) and Blind Veterans UK.

And here’s another photo confirming the list from an article in the National Institute for the Blind’s Annual Report for 1935-36:

List of first books recorded for Britain's talking book program.

Hearing Voices

 

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Audiobooks are starting to get a bit of respect. Their improved reputation is evident in the increasing amount of press coverage given to them by the New York Times. Here are a few of the most recent audiobook features from that paper:

“Hearing Genuine Voices of Midcentury Fiction” by William Grimes:

This is the story of Calliope Records, a spoken word label founded in the 1960s that’s not as well-known as its contemporaries, Caedmon and Spoken Arts. Calliope offered 15-minute recitations by John Updike, William Styron, James Baldwin, Bernard Malamud, and others. Grimes does a particularly good job at describing these voices: Updike sounds “impossibly youthful and fey,” Malamud speaks with a Brooklyn accent, Jones and Styron have a “muted style,” and Baldwin brings “refined theatricality” to the passages he reads aloud.

“Serious Listening” by John Schwartz:

Schwartz’s defense of audiobooks points out that buying habits are remarkably similar for both readers and listeners. Surprise, surprise, a large number of listeners (23%) choose literary fiction over more easily digestible fare. Schwartz describes his experience of listening to literary titles that pose challenges to the ear: David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest

“Funny Talk” by David Carr:

Review of Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris, who’s been entertaining listeners of “This American Life” for years with his reminiscences of growing up in North Carolina. Carr calls him “a brilliant audio performer of his own work.”

“An Audible Feast” by Paul Hendrickson:

Simon & Schuster Audio has been releasing the “The Ernest Hemingway Audiobook Library” since 2002. Hendrickson admits to being an audiobook skeptic until hearing such talent as Donald Sutherland, Stacy Keach, William Hurt, and Brian Dennehy take on his beloved writer. Here he is on the sound of Hemingway: “Freed from the page, I could close my eyes and lie on some mental living-room rug and dream my way in all over again.”

“To Hear Her Tell It” by Charles Isherwood:

The Times theater critic gives a rave review to Meryl Streep for her reading of Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary. Toibin’s book – which began its life as a dramatic monologue for the Irish stage – is described by Isherwood as the “ideal audiobook.”