Stephen King’s Favorite Audiobooks

Stephen King The Mist Audiobook

Top 10 lists are becoming increasingly popular among audiobook listeners and authors alike. Here’s one from Stephen King, a longtime backer of spoken word recordings and an adept narrator in his own right. King earned the gratitude of audiobook fans everywhere when he organized a benefit on behalf of Frank Muller after a nasty motorcycle accident. The Haven Foundation was established by King shortly afterward to support audio narrators and other freelance writers who lack a safety net.

King also earned respect by telling book purists like Harold Bloom to stuff it. Below are the books he recommends for anyone who wants to hear a good story.

Stephen King’s Top 10 Audiobooks:

1. Philip Roth, American Pastoral (read by Ron Silver)

2. Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove (read by Wolfram Kandinsky)

3. J.K. Rowling, The Harry Potter novels (read by Jim Dale)

4. Annie Proulx, That Old Ace in the Hole (read by Arliss Howard)

5. Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups (read by Blair Brown)

6. Ian McEwan, Enduring Love (read by Steven Crossley)

7. Patrick O’Brian, Aubrey/Maturin novels (read by Patrick Tull)

8. Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes (read by Frank McCourt)

9. Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake (read by Campbell Scott)

10. Neil Gaiman, American Gods (read by George Guidall)

King’s list first appeared in Entertainment Weekly in 2007: “Stephen King on Why He Loves a Good Audiobook.”

Recorded Books


My research into the origins of the audiobook industry has led me to interview a few of its pioneers. Last week I spoke with Henry Trentman, who founded Recorded Books Inc in 1978. Its tapes were targeted at the growing number of commuters clogging up America’s highways. Few bookstores stocked audiobooks until the mid-1980s, but bored drivers could rent them through the mail for roughly the same price as a hardcover book. The company launched the careers of many beloved narrators including Frank Muller; one of my personal favorites is his recording of Motherless Brooklyn, a detective novel featuring a narrator with Tourette syndrome. You can hear a sample here. Recorded Books is still in operation today and, as of January 2014, had over 13,500 titles in its catalog.

MATTHEW RUBERY [MR]: How did you come up with the idea to start Recorded Books?

HENRY TRENTMAN [HR]: I did not come up with the idea. I copied it from Duvall Hecht’s Books On Tape. He was the clever guy who thought of recording unabridged titles and renting them through the mail, and that was one of several keys to the growth of the industry.

Here is how I got into it: although I did not realize it at the time, my three years in the Marine Corps had several major impacts on my life, one of which was the realization that I wanted to be my own boss. I really did not like people telling me what and how to operate. By the late seventies I was an independent manufacturers’ rep selling semiconductor and high vacuum equipment from Delaware to Eastern Tennessee. It wasn’t unusual to travel 3 or 4 hours between customers. That’s a lot of time in the car, and the radio stations down here, you kept losing them, and I’m not a big country & western or rock & roll kind of guy; I was more into classical and folk music and old time country, none of which were easy to find. I was just bored.

I started going into the libraries and taping the Caedmon records onto my little cassette player, which sat on the seat next to me. I copied every Caedmon record in the Arlington Public Library on to my cassette recorder. They were consumed on one trip to Knoxville, Tennessee. The problem was there weren’t too many records, and records aren’t very long anyway. I had to ration them on my longer trips and not use them on the shorter ones. The one I remember the most was this one about Dylan Thomas, and Alec Guinness was the actor in it. He read Dylan’s poetry much better than Dylan did—because he was an actor. That was a very enjoyable experience, so I tried to reproduce that with other records but couldn’t find any. Sunday night one of the local public radio stations had an old time radio show hour, and I copied all their material. Taping old radio shows was okay, but it was time-consuming to do it, and really old radio shows aren’t that interesting once you get over the quaintness of them.

Then one day I opened my American Express bill. It had a little article about one of their clients, Books on Tape out in California, which rented unabridged books through the mail, and I said, “Gee, that’s absolutely great, that’s exactly what I like,” because I’ve always been a heavy reader. I ordered one, listened to Wolfram Kandinsky read a spy novel, and I was hooked. After listening to a couple, I decided that there was room for another company and maybe this would be a way to get out of the rep business, which I did not particularly like, and into making my own product. To give you an idea how naive I was about it, I looked upon it as a manufacturing business not publishing. So I decided to try to do it on the East Coast and it took about a year, year and a half, to set it up and arrange it, get the rights to a couple of books. It was an interesting start-up.

MR: How did you view Books On Tape—as a competitor or something else?

HT: Well, I’m a salesman, and everyone who has a similar product is a competitor. But I never really worried—at least I tried not to worry about my competition. If you try to make what your customers want, the competition has to worry about you rather than you worrying about them. I mean, in theory. I can remember listening to an abridged book about Ray Kroc, the guy who founded McDonald’s. They asked him if he had a competitor drowning in the swimming pool, what would he do? He said, “Well, I’d take a garden hose and stuff it down his mouth and turn it on.” And then in the same breath he said he’d never worried about his competitors; he was so busy growing his own business, he didn’t care what they did, he just wanted to do what he thought was the right thing to do. So he never reacted to his competitors, and I think I was pretty much the same way. I mean, I heard that book years after I’d started the business and thought of it as a confirmation of how I acted. I thought it was a big world. I was on the East Coast so I had a local postage advantage. And I didn’t really talk to Dewey [Duvall Hecht] for a number of years after we started up. I met him at a couple of trade shows; he was a very nice guy, and I think we were friendly competitors. I’m sure he would have loved it if I went out of business, and I would have loved it if he’d gone out of business.

MR: It sounds like you had no literary background or publishing background?

HT: No, none whatsoever. I guess I’m a mild dyslexic in that I can’t spell very well, read very slowly, and my writing is horrible. So I was an absolutely atrocious English student. I’d always enjoyed reading, but most literature classes either didn’t pick particularly interesting books or they’d analyze them to death, which is not what writing is all about, in my mind. I had the worst background in the world for what I did.

MR: How did you choose the name Recorded Books?

HT: Well, you know, it was really funny, if I had it to do over again I would definitely not name it Recorded Books. My mentor in business, Pete Fletcher, had once mentioned to me—and I remembered it, this was way before Recorded Books—that you should always try to name your company after the product that it makes. That seemed to make sense, so that’s what I tried to do. Books on Tape had the first shot at it, and they picked the best of them all, “Books On Tape,” except, of course, it limited it to tape, so if the media ever changed—which, back in the days of cassettes, really wasn’t a thought—you had a problem. And so I looked for something a little more generic. I think it was a young woman who was working part-time for me who came up with the actual name.  If I had it to do over again, I would have chosen another name.

Here’s why it was a bad idea and here’s why I would not do it again. And I did not repeat this blunder when we started our English operation. I named it after a person, my great-great-grandfather. The reason I did that is people were constantly referring to one company and the other by the same name, or the product by “Do you listen to books on tape?” or, later, it was “Do you listen to recorded books?” We were constantly getting credit for [Books on Tapes’] stuff, and I’m sure it was vice-versa. It was because the names were so generic, it became like Kleenex—it became the name of the product even though Kleenex wasn’t making the tissue. If I had to do it again, I probably would have picked someone’s name, a human name, and then when you referred to that company, you wouldn’t refer to it as books on tape or recorded books, meaning the other company.

MR: The first book your company recorded was Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf. Do you remember why you chose this title to start with?

HT: I remember we wanted to get going and we didn’t have rights to anything else yet. So the first book had to be in the public domain. Jack London was a dramatic, still modern writer. I had always liked the story of London’s The Sea-Wolf, and we had found this actor, Frank Muller, who just—who just brought that book alive. You forgot you were being read to. You know you have a good reader when, after the first three or four minutes, you’re no longer conscious of him reading to you. Then you’ve got the guy. As long as you’re conscious of the reader, it gets in the way of the story.

MR: It seems like unbelievable luck to have started out with such a world-class narrator—how did you find him?

HT: I had a friend who was in dinner theater and went around to Arena Stage and a couple of other places and put ads on the bulletin boards in the back rooms there for actors. Arena Stage was the premier stage in Washington, DC. It was Frank’s girlfriend at the time, Kitty, who forced him to come to audition. Frank was a little hesitant, which was surprising; he’s not a shy guy but he is a procrastinator. He was just hesitant to come out; he was young, probably thirty at the time. So she got him to come out. He was just great, he really was. He had the goods right from the beginning.

MR: Your company’s known for unabridged books. Why did you decide not to do abridgments?

HT: An abridged version—unless it’s a horrible book—is never as good as the original. If the writer knew what he was doing, he’d already taken all the fluff out of it. So, really, you’re taking all the meat and just ending up with the skeleton when you’re doing abridged. And remember, I was looking for time in the car, so I wasn’t trying to save time, I wasn’t trying to get a book done in two hours; I would have loved it if it was fourteen hours because I was spending a ton of time in the car. The major publishers were concerned about time because they had to sell these things and to sell two tapes for 14 bucks was a lot easier than selling fourteen tapes for $100. It wasn’t a book store item. And the major publishers—the thought of rental was just absolutely beyond their ken. The conventional publishing world was so different from the way I thought. I just couldn’t believe these guys. I thought, they came from a different world than I did. The abridged book had zero interest. I just couldn’t imagine anyone willingly listening to an abridgment if they could listen to the unabridged. And, since you normally don’t keep books—you know, you read them once—for 14 bucks, you’d get a one-time listen or a thirty-day listen to the unabridged, or you could get the abridged and be done with it in two hours but you got to keep it.

MR: Did you have any guidelines about how narrators should read your books?

HT: You really cannot train someone to read a book. They either have it or they don’t. We found actors who read the way we wanted them to—I think that’s basically the answer to your question. I wanted someone to bring the book alive. Usually, if it was fiction, being able to give each character the personality that fit the personality the author was trying to develop was pretty key. But you couldn’t ham it up, you couldn’t overdo it. It was really a drawing back. And someone like Frank [Muller] could do it; he was just a natural. Barbara Rosenblat, she could do it. Flo Gibson almost hammed it up, but she got away with it; she was good for certain types of books. So we would cast our books; Frank could not read every kind of fiction, and he actually wasn’t very good at non-fiction.

And the people reading non-fiction—it’s hard to describe—but when you heard it, you knew this is how I want to listen to The Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman, which was like a total of 28 cassettes—I mean it was a long book. The person who read it, in that case, had to have a really good grasp of German and French and Italian, a little bit of Turkish; because when you try to fake the pronunciation of the word, you know it’s a fake. Even though you haven’t a clue how it’s supposed to be pronounced, you knew that wasn’t it. We researched the books when we did them, and we tried to get the dialects correct if there was a dialect involved, and we certainly tried to get the pronunciation correct. Fortunately we were in New York, and we had these guys who worked part time for us who would work in the studio with the actors. We always had one person monitoring it, you know, handling the tape deck, but his real job was to make sure the book was read properly. A lot of guys who are trying to break into the world of acting tend to be on the intellectual side anyway, so they really got into it. We had this huge talent pool of people working behind the scenes who helped us get it right, and helped the actor get it right.

MR: How did you cast narrators for books?

HT: Each book was a separate thing. Of course, once someone started reading a series of books, we tried to keep them in the series. It was a collaboration, I guess, sort of. Claudia [Howard], who ran the studio, would go out and was continually auditioning people. Then she would get together a bunch of tapes of various people for, say, a book that we had. If we already knew the person, it was easy; we knew the book, and we’d say, “Oh yeah, Frank could read that, that’d be perfect for him.” Or: “This is a George Guidall book.” But, if we were looking for new talent—which we constantly were, because it was so hard to find people who could read, even in New York, which is where all the stage actors were, and a lot of commercial voice work—it was just really hard. Claudia was constantly holding auditions, and she would get together a bunch of them, and she’d send one set to Sandy [Spencer], my partner, and then she’d send one set to me, and we’d go through and grade them. We never agreed, but eventually we got to where we wanted to. Usually when you had someone that was really good, everyone agreed. It’s when you had someone that was less talented, where you’d have one person say “Aw, this person’s okay,” and someone else would say, “No, they suck.” That’s how you would do it. I mean, you knew it when you knew it.

MR: Do you see any difference between listening to a book read aloud and reading it in print—are they the same thing in your eyes or something different?

HT: It’s funny. I don’t listen to books much anymore, because I don’t travel a lot; when I travel, I still like to listen to them. Even though I’m a very slow reader, I prefer reading the printed page because, for one thing, it’s more private, and you develop your own characters. I mean Frank [Muller] would always develop the characters better than I ever would in my imagination; he just had that knack. I just prefer reading them by myself. Whereas my wife, who reads like a million miles an hour, she prefers to listen to books. I think it’s a personal preference.

MR: Did you ever encounter any hostility or skepticism toward your books?

HT: Hostility is probably too strong a word, but yes. Some people could be very small-minded. There is nothing superior to getting it from the printed page than it is from hearing it read out loud. And the better the literature, the better it sounds read out loud. I never could understand why people thought there was something magical about reading it with your eyes. I mean, there was a lot of snootiness about “My imagination’s better than the other guy’s.” You can actually read a book and then listen to it and just get a different experience, because you’ll get a different interpretation. But, you know, two interpretations can both be good. You just have to be not so possessive of your own.

[This interview is reprinted with the permission of Henry Trentman. The phone interview took place on October 16, 2014. Copyright © Matthew Rubery 2014.]

BBC National Short Story Award

BBC short story award cover image

This is a great time for audiobook fans to get free content. To take a recent example, all of the stories shortlisted for this year’s BBC National Short Story Award can be downloaded here: We’re talking about some of Britain’s finest writers (Tessa Hadley, Francesca Rhydderch, Lionel Shriver, Zadie Smith, and Rose Tremain) read by equally talented actors (from Carey Mulligan to Rebecca Hall).

My only complaint is that the stories are abridged! The BBC remains one of the worst offenders when it comes to butchering the original text. C’mon, let us hear every word written by the author. These are short stories, not Middlemarch.

The Great War, Blindness, and Britain’s Talking Book Library


This week I gave a lecture at the British Library titled “From Shell Shock to Shellac: The Great War, Blindness, and Britain’s Talking Book Library.” Here’s a short abstract of the talk, followed by historic sound recordings of the oldest surviving talking books:

“Britain’s Talking Book Library began as a way of providing reading material to soldiers blinded during the First World War. Talking books were specially modified gramophone records containing recitations of the Bible, Shakespeare, and popular fiction. This public lecture traces the talking book’s development from the initial experiments after the War to its debut and reception among blind soldiers and civilians in the 1930s. The presentation has been put together using archives held by the Royal National Institute of Blind People and St Dunstan’s, the two organisations responsible for Britain’s Talking Book Library. It will also feature sound recordings of the oldest surviving talking book records.” Further details are listed on the British Library’s website: “What’s On.”

The two recordings I played were from William Makepeace Thackeray’s History of Henry Esmond (1852) and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford (1851). As far as I’ve been able to determine, the Thackeray recording is the oldest surviving talking book made in Britain. It was among the first five works of fiction recorded when the Talking Book Library opened in November 1935. (The first two by Agatha Christie and Joseph Conrad have both been lost or destroyed, alas.) Shellac records are very fragile. This one only survived because it was kept safe in EMI’s archives. The Gaskell recording was made a few months after the Thackeray recording and is of interest because the narrator is Anthony McDonald, who read the first talking book. So, even though the earliest recordings are missing, we can at least hear his voice on this slightly later one.

William Thackeray, History of Henry Esmond (1852):

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford (1851), read by Anthony McDonald:

Here’s a link to my essay on Britain’s Talking Book Library in Twentieth Century British History:

Full Text:



On Sight and Insight: An Interview with John Hull


John Hull lost his sight in his 40s. His memoir, Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness (1990), vividly describes how it feels to lose one’s sight after a lifetime of visual experiences. Oliver Sacks praised its account of how the “inner eye” gradually vanishes with blindness.

While writing a history of talking books, I have spoken with many people who are blind about the differences between reading books with their eyes, ears, and fingers. As Emeritus Professor of Religious Education at the University of Birmingham and the author of several books, Hull stands out among this group as exceptionally articulate when it comes to speaking about his life. I have long wanted to discuss with him passages from Touching the Rock in which he recalls listening to books on cassette tapes. There he notes: “Reading a book has become like listening to a lecture.”

Recently, the London Interdisciplinary Discussion Group held a seminar on “Blindness” at the Science Museum, where John Hull, neuroscientist Colin Blakemore, philosopher Ophelia Deroy, and filmmakers James Spinney and Peter Middleton were invited to address the question: “How can the non-blind understand blindness?” (You can watch Spinney and Middleton’s short film “Notes on Blindness” here: Poor health prevented Hull from attending, but I wrote to him after the event. Here are his responses to my questions about what it’s like to go from reading books with your eyes to reading them with your ears:

Matthew Rubery [MR]: In Touching the Rock, you wrote that “Nobody loves cassettes the way people love books.” How has your relationship to books changed since losing your sight?

John Hull [JH]: I suffered acutely from bereavement at the loss of the book. Indeed, I sometimes told people that the greatest losses were the human face and the printed page. The feeling of loss has lessened over the years but I still sometimes feel it. When I go into a library, I am sometimes grasped by a regret that I cannot freely browse. It is like the feeling that you cannot just go walking in the hills. How wonderful it would be to be free again, just to wander along the aisles of shelves and select at random anything that struck my curiosity! But these feelings are momentary and passing. They are quickly overtaken by a feeling of gratitude that although the printed book has gone, the contents of them remain. I still love the smell and feel of the book. I like to get my hands on a book, to know immediately how big it is, if it is a quality product, how the pages feel under my fingers.

[MR]: Do you consider listening to books to be the same thing as reading books? If not, in what ways are they different?

[JH]: This question reveals a misunderstanding about reading. Reading is an intellectual action of the understanding, of the mind. Information comes to the brain by means of various senses – the eyes, fingertips or ears. Whilst it would not be true to say that the means of access makes no difference, the act of reading is the same. One absorbs the thoughts and meanings. So I do not regard myself as listening to a spoken book any more than a sighted person thinks that he or she is looking at a book. Looking, feeling and hearing are the means of access; reading is of the mind.

I would now make a further distinction: there is a difference between reading and being read to. This depends partly on the social situation and partly on the content. When Marilyn reads a P.G. Wodehouse book to the family on holiday, I am being read to. When I turn on YouTube to hear a live voice read a poem to me, I am being read to. I am not in control of the reading; I am passive but responding. But when I am reading for myself, I am in control. I am manipulating the speed, repeating at will, stopping and starting when I choose. The type of computer voice makes no difference to me any more than the typeface deters the sighted reader. I read fast, for I am not reading for entertainment or relaxation but for knowledge and understanding. So when I read poetry, jokes and literature on the personal computer (PC), the speed is slow, for I need time to laugh, to enjoy the language, to repeat the sounds in my inner ear.

Having explained this, I now go on to comment on the differences between visual and aural reading. These are very significant. Visual reading is in space; aural reading is in time. Space is solid and unmoving; time is always moving. If a sighted person looks away from the printed page, the page is still there. If an aural reader stops the sound, there is nothing there. With the help of the artefact, a sighted reader has a sense of progress through the volume; an aural reader has no sense of this, since unless you notice the page number and have already found out how many pages the book has, you do not know how far through the book you are. Instead you have a sense of accumulated understanding of the argument. A visual reader may retain a visual memory of the page, and of the place on the page where a mark was entered into the margin; an aural reader retains a memory of the heard expression, and can locate it again via the search facility.

[MR]: How would you describe your relationship to the book’s narrator? Does the narrator’s presence enhance or interfere with the reading process?

[JH]: You seem to be assuming a human reader. I used to use human readers before the PC technology came along. The computer is so superior to the human narrator and is much to be preferred. Humans arrive late, have horrible colds, want to go to the loo, demand cups of coffee and get hoarse. The computer does not breathe. When I started to read on the PC, I at last found something that could outlast my own powers of concentration! People often ask me if the PC voice irritates me. No, it is not relevant. It is not the sound of the voice that I am listening to but the meaning of the language. Human narrators find it difficult to hide their own emotions when they are reading; the PC has no emotion, only a syntactical inflexion to mark the grammar. The computer is never surprised, baffled, apologetic or embarrassed. The impersonality of the PC is its strength.

[MR]: Do you ever listen to books that you read before losing your sight? How would you compare them?

[JH]: Yes, sometimes I read books on the PC that I remember from sighted days. The Bible is a case in point. But such web sites as Bible Gateway have surpassed the printed book and I do not miss the latter. Of course, when scripture is read in public worship, I am being read to, a different kind of experience.

[MR]: Are there any books that you think are better heard than read?

[JH]: Well, poetry is generally better when read aloud, just as music is better alive than read on the printed score. In general, I regard speed reading on the computer as being superior to visual reading. The eyes get tired, people suffer from eye strain. But there are no muscles in the ears and you do not suffer from ear strain. I can walk up and down with a cup of tea while my narrator churns it out at 400 words a minute, and I can keep it up for hours. Perhaps the sighted reader is quicker but I am not sure.

[MR]: Has listening to books influenced the type of books you enjoy?

[JH]: It has changed my reading for pleasure, for new novels are usually not online. I tend to read the classics, all of which are on the Gutenberg Project and similar sources. My serious reading has not changed since it is determined by the subject matter. I get digital books from publishers, and if not available, I just scan the whole book into the computer, using Optic Book scanner with ABBYY fine reader as the OCR and Jaws as the screen reader.

[MR]: Is there anything else you’d like to say about talking books?

[JH]: The main aspect you seem to have omitted is the mental adjustment necessary in the move from visual to aural reading. It takes the brain a long time to get used to the new method and this learning experience is very vivid. Gradually, my brain has become tactile and aural.

[These remarks are reprinted here with the permission of John M. Hull. The interview took place via email on May 12, 2014. Copyright © Matthew Rubery 2014.]

Earbud Lit


Ever listened to Moby Dick? Forest Lewis has. In fact, he listened to Melville’s novel (all 21.5 hours of it) 5 times in a row one summer.

Such audiobook jags have helped Lewis to think about the difference between reading books in print and listening to recorded books. And he does view them in distinct terms. For instance, he favors the term “performer” over “narrator” or “reader.” Lewis says this not to bury the audiobook, however, but to praise it. The human voice is what enables the audiobook to transcend the book’s limitations.

Lewis’s most provocative claim is that listening to audiobooks has made him a better reader of other books. Specifically, his own reading has become more of a performance. Here’s how he describes reading Jane Austen to himself: “My own silent reading of Austen is cliché, stodgy and far too 19th century, as if the characters were trying to bore themselves.” Reading Austen’s prose aloud has helped his inner voice to become far more expressive and, at least when reading Austen, downright funny.

There’s also a list of recommendations for when you’re done with Moby Dick:



Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, performed by Juliet Stevenson

Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, performed by George Guidall

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, performed by Martin Jarvis

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, performed by Sissy Spacek

William Faulkner, Light in August, performed by Mark Hammer

Homer, The Odyssey, performed by Ian McKellen

Zora Neal Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, performed by Ruby Dee

Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses, performed by Frank Muller

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, performed by Rob Inglis

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, performed by Davina Porter


The full story is available at The Stake: “Earbud Lit: How Audio Makes Familiar Books Strange.”

The Voice of the Poets


There’s a terrific interview up on Slate between Bruce Holsinger, a historical novelist and professor of medieval literature, and Simon Vance, one of the great audiobook narrators. Pro that he is, Vance dispatches with the reading vs “cheating” debate in the first line in order to clear the way for more substantial questions about the audiobook as an art form in its own right. He makes a persuasive case for the narrator’s ability to enrich the reading experience.

Perhaps the most interesting question posed here is whether there’s such a thing as a “period voice” for, say, a 16th-century landowner. After all, narrators have enough trouble trying to voice characters without worrying about stuff like vowel shifts. Vance proposes an interesting compromise between authenticity and entertainment—or, as he puts it, no Swedish Chef voices. You’ll definitely want to hear Vance’s Henry VIII in the recording of Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies.

A recording of Holsinger and Vance’s conversation can be found here: “The Voice of the Poets: The Life and Work of an Audiobook Narrator.”

On Reading Aloud


When is a good time to listen to an audiobook? If you’re Sam Allingham, it’s while scanning the bar codes of old library books. Mindless labor provides time to lose himself in storytelling: “At its best, the book on tape leads the listener into a kind of reverie.” Use of the outdated term “books on tape” here is deliberate. For Allingham, the term evokes the childhood experience of being read to by our parents. The lullaby is never far away in this account.

Allingham’s essay for The Millions is noteworthy for its attention to Librivox, a website offering free recordings of thousands of out-of-copyright books. Avid listeners will know what a wonderful resource this is. They will also know how exasperating it can be to hear a great book butchered by an enthusiastic amateur. Allingham recalls a few of the worthy and worthless narrators, and ultimately praises the repository for this very quality. For him, the most memorable recordings have been by volunteers who make up for a lack of professionalism with a sense of “personal attachment” (for example, a Southern American woman reading Thomas Hardy).

You’ll find other recommendations—and warnings—here: “On Reading Aloud.”

Audiobooks and the Return of Storytelling


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.”

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 Gospel According to St John


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


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


HV Morton, In the Steps of the Master


Anthology including Shakespeare and other famous poets


James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson

Axel Munthe, The Story of San Michele


Winston Churchill, The World Crisis, 1911-18


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.