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),

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?


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.

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.

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.]

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.”

Hearing Voices



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.”

“Talking to Myself”: An Interview with Toni Morrison


Toni Morrison is widely recognized as one of America’s greatest living writers. In 2006, the New York Times Book Review voted her novel Beloved as the best American novel of the past 25 years. Morrison’s remarkable achievements as a storyteller have been recognized by nearly every prestigious award possible including the Nobel Prize for Literature. She has been a pioneering author in countless ways. Yet she has received little credit for one achievement: recording her own audiobooks.

Morrison is rare among reputable authors in recording her own books. The earliest audiobook of Morrison’s work that I have come across is a recording of Sula made by Clipper Audio in 1973. Morrison began her own audio career in 1983 with a recording of Tar Baby for the American Audio Prose Library. She went on to record all of her other novels including The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Beloved, Jazz, Paradise, Love, A Mercy, and Home. These novels have also been recorded by actresses such as Desiree Coleman, Ruby Dee, Lynne Thigpen, and Alfre Woodard. But Morrison’s recordings reveal how the author herself imagined the words on the page to sound.

Morrison narrates her audiobooks in the same way as she reads books aloud at public events. Her reading style has not always been as well received as her writing. Some find her speech mesmerizing, even haunting, and embrace it as the novel’s authentic voice. Others struggle with her unique cadences and refusal to perform. Her novels can be challenging to follow by ear owing to their lyricism, abrupt shifts in setting, and overall fragmentation, with little authorial guidance to help the reader follow along. Hearing Toni Morrison read aloud is a very different experience from that of reading her to oneself.

Recently I had a chance to speak with Morrison about her audiobooks. Here’s what she had to say about the art of reading books out loud.

Matthew Rubery: Many authors don’t record their own audiobooks, especially not in the 1980s and 1990s. What made you decide to do it?

Toni Morrison: I listened to one of the audio recordings that had been done by actresses, like Lynne Thigpen and Alfre Woodard, and both of them were first-rate actresses. I listened to Woodard because I like her, and then I noticed that she didn’t — let me see how I can put this — the rhythm was wrong. She didn’t put the emphasis where I had heard it in my mind. So I thought, well, then I’ll read it the way I think it ought to sound. I agreed to do them all, and I think I did everything but — I don’t know if I did Paradise. Since that time I’ve gone over to the studio and sat in that little cell and recorded all the books I wrote with the right emphasis, accent, and so on. When I read the book aloud before audiences, I always read it the same way. So that’s what made me decide.

MR: Speaking of putting the intonations in the right places, how would you describe your own reading style?

TM: I don’t know how to describe it. One of your questions was about dramatizing character voices. That’s a little too theatrical and staged for me because I don’t want to limit the reader’s view or imagination about the characters. I never describe them in detail either because I want to leave that to the reader’s imagination. But nevertheless, if I think that Beloved opens with a certain rhythm — “124 was spiteful” BOOM dah-du-du-du-du-dah-dah [laughs] — that’s the way I hear it. And why should anybody else?

MR: Do you think it makes a difference whether the author or a professional actor reads the book?

TM: Well, I’ve heard some authors read and they’re awful. And I’ve heard some authors read and they were wonderful. I heard Bill Styron read some years ago; I couldn’t believe how good he was. Really good. He was reading in public. And I’ve heard Faulkner — horrifying! I mean that beautiful written language, and he’s drawling when he reads. So it depends. Some authors do very, very well when they read their own stuff. But I do know this: a friend of mine, Peter Sellars, has been teaching for years at the University of California, Los Angeles, and he has all of his students listen to The Bluest Eye, my recording, before they read the book, and I have heard people say that after they heard the recording, they understood things better. The recording made a difference in their understanding or intimacy or relationship to the material.

MR: Do you have a different relationship to readers of your books than to audiences who are listening to you read?

TM: I always think they read it and hear it the way I do — but that’s wrong. I want the reader to help me with the book. I want the relationship to be that intimate. So I have to leave out certain things that the reader can supply. I once had a colleague, a young woman, tell me that her brother died, and she says she had a dream about her brother drowning in a lake, but Pilate, who was a character in Song of Solomon, came and rescued him. It was a very pleasant dream. And I said, “What’s she look like?” So this woman gave me a very detailed description, none of which I gave in the book. I mean, she’s tall, she’s black, she wears this and that. But this woman actually recognized her in a dream, which means she put her own characteristics into this fictional person. The woman had no confusion: maybe she was somebody else? How’d she know she was Pilate? That is the kind of thing I really like in a reader.

MR: Does it make a difference to you whether someone listens to your work or reads it in print?

TM: I sort of emphasize the book, myself. I prefer to think that readers don’t really need to hear the book being read by me or anybody, but I’m perfectly happy when they do. It’s really hard, I’m talking about sound as I hear it from the printed page and then my conviction about what it ought to sound like in the audio book. I don’t know, this may not be a good comparison, but it’s like music to me, in a sense that, I suppose, a really good musician can read music, a score, and hear it — I mean, I can’t, but musicians can sit there and they can translate the notes into sound, and then later on they sort of, you know, they play it.

I think a lot of it is just my background growing up in a household of people, of adults, who told stories for entertainment, and repeated them for entertainment. Funny stories, mostly ghost stories. But the interesting thing was that at some point they would ask us to tell those stories, the same stories: “Tell that story about…” and we would do it. And they encouraged us to alter it, I mean not the plot, but we could put in our own style in order to emphasize something. A lot of them were rhymes within the story, and they were all sort of violent, but [laughs] all children’s stories were violent: “Rock-a-bye Baby,” plague stories, “Ring around the Rosie,” all that.

Anyway, I’m also a radio child, because there were these stories on the radio, about fifteen minutes long, and I would lean in, I was always curious: “Don’t put your ear up against the speakers,” my mother would say. And the thing is, if somebody on the radio says, “She wore a blue dress,” I have to pick out the blue shade, I have to actively participate in that reading, in that story, as being told on the radio. If they say “rain,” I mean I have to see that, or I do see it, so that that relationship is paramount. There’s a lot of withholding of information, though not outrageously, but certain withholding of information or placement of it. So I just really want this relationship between the text and/or the audio with the reader. I don’t like the distance that sometimes exists. You know where you’re simply absorbing the information? I want the reader to participate in it.

MR: You’ve talked in previous interviews about how your novels relate to oral traditions of African American communities, and you’ve just spoken about growing up telling stories and listening to the radio. Do your audiobooks relate to these oral traditions as well?

TM: They probably do. I’ve always said that African Americans didn’t need novels for a long time — not that they necessarily could write them. They had autobiographies of Frederick Douglass for example, tales of being enslaved, and so on — but not fiction. And I thought the reason they didn’t read it or it wasn’t important was because of the music that they had, and the stories they told, which was the cultural transmission of life. And then there was a moment when that didn’t work, when the music belonged to everybody. Jazz and so on. It might have originated with African Americans, but it was distributed by others. I’ve heard some of the best jazz in Japan, so it was not culturally limited to, say, African Americans. I thought that literature, then, really ought to exist, but I didn’t want to do the sort of writing that was very popular in the so-called Harlem Renaissance, back in the nineteen-twenties, which was sort of racial uplift. I didn’t want to do that. I don’t mean that it shouldn’t have uplifted the race. But those books implied a white reader, which implied a white gaze, so that there was always some white critic or eye looking over your shoulder, for Ralph Ellison and others, which was appropriate since they were trying to address the oppressors, so to speak. I didn’t want to do that. I could care less.

MR: People feel very strongly about matching an audiobook’s narrator to the subject matter, especially in terms of gender, race, or ethnicity. For example, some think that a novel about an African American character should have an African American narrator. Did you have any say or strong feelings about who narrated your audiobooks?

TM: No, I didn’t know who they had picked. I just signed the licenses, and I guess the publisher thought it would be good to get a black actor, like Lynne Thigpen or Alfre Woodard, to do it. You know what’s interesting though? I’ve done audiobooks, or permitted one book, I think Home, to be done as an audiobook in France. The reader is an actress, who is extremely good — I’ve heard her, I met her, and she has kind of a low voice, like mine. I heard from the editor a couple of weeks ago that the translation of the book, as it’s read by this woman [Anna Mouglalis] in French, is selling like hotcakes. So the editor asked me whether I would let this woman do all the others, and I said of course. I mean, that’s a whole new thing for me to hear. I don’t think the audiobook’s jumped off in Europe the way it has here, but it certainly looks like it’s going to jump off, since the audiobook of this French actress’s reading has sold incredibly well. It means that not only is it not necessary to have an African American read my book, but she could be white and she could be European, and do it also.

MR: I just have one more question for you. I think of your books as formally complex since, among other things, they have lyrical passages that look like poetry on the page. Do you try to draw attention to the novel’s form when you’re reading aloud?

TM: Well, I think poetry — all the poets hate it when I say this — poetry is now really good sentences cut up. [laughs] It’s just really, really good sentences and then you cut them in parts; it doesn’t have to rhyme or what have you. Anyway, what I really work at in terms of intimacy is — I call it “invisible ink,” although somebody told me that was inappropriate. Like in the book Home, for example, I withheld color, primary color, all the way through the book. Nothing has color unless it’s white or black, nothing, until the character gets home. And then there’s all this color in the garden, in the trees, and he says “Were they always this green?” It’s not subtle, but it does mean something in terms of trying to suggest to the reader, and make him feel that comfort and that beauty and that safety of being home. There’s the smell, there are the gardens, there’s no trash. People there might not like you, but they’re not going to hurt you. Rather than say THAT, what I just said, those sentences, I just use the palette of color to do that job, almost like an illustration. So I have certain techniques, even if the reader could care less about the techniques, I think, in the books, certainly not in audio. I opened Song of Solomon with red, white, and blue. I thought that was interesting to me, but no one cared that the character had these blue wings and there were white clouds and red velvet. That was me, talking to myself, I guess. [laughs]

[This interview is reprinted here with the permission of Toni Morrison. The interview took place by phone on Friday, June 28, 2013. Copyright © Matthew Rubery 2013.]

You can listen to an excerpt from the interview here: 

A PDF copy of this interview can be downloaded here: Toni Morrison Audiobooks Interview.