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.

Better than the Book?


A few months ago Reddit posted the following question: “What are some audiobooks you’d consider better experiences than actually reading the book?” Though some might take issue with the phrase “actually reading,” the question nevertheless generated some interesting recommendations. I’ve posted the highlights below:



Barbara Kingsolver, Prodigal Summer

Bill Bryson’s books (A Short History of Nearly Everything, A Walk in the Woods, In a Sunburned Country, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Notes from a Small Island)

David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster and Other Selected Essays

Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

EB White, Charlotte’s Web

George Carlin’s books

James Dickey, Deliverance

Jon Stewart, America (The Audiobook): A Citizen’s Guide to Inaction

Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner

Michael Chabon, Summerland

Neil Gaiman’s works (Neverwhere, The Graveyard Book, Stardust, Coraline)

Nick Cave, The Death of Bunny Monroe

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Stephen Colbert, I Am America (And So Can You!)

William S. Burroughs, Junky

Woody Allen, Without Feathers



Alan Partridge, I, Partridge: We Need to Talk about Alan (Alan Partridge aka Steve Coogan)

Barack Obama, Dreams from my Father

Bill Clinton, My Life (comment: “it feels like you’re having a beer with him while he’s chatting”)

Christopher Hitches, Hitch 22: A Memoir

David Attenborough, Life on Air: Memoirs of a Broadcaster

David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day

Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes

Henry Rollins, Get in the Van

Kathy Griffin, Official Book Club Selection

Michael Caine, What’s It All About?

Michael Palin, Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years

Penn Jillette, God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales

Robert Evans, The Kid Stays in the Picture

Sarah Palin, Going Rogue: An American Life

Steve Martin, Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life

Tina Fey, Bossypants

Tracy Morgan, I Am the New Black

Waylon Jennings, Waylon: An Autobiography



The Bible (James Earl Jones or Johnny Cash)

AA Milne, Winnie the Pooh (Alan Bennett)

Anne Frank, The Diary of Anne Frank (Selma Blair or Wynona Ryder)

Adam Mansbach, Go the F**k to Sleep (Samuel L. Jackson)

Barney Stinson, The Bro Code (Neil Patrick Harris)

Bret Easton Ellis, Imperial Bedrooms (Andrew McCarthy)

Bret Easton Ellis, Lunar Park (James Van Der Beek)

Carl Sagan, Contact (Jodie Foster)

Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses (Brad Pitt)

Cressida Cowell, How to Train your Dragon (David Tennant)

CS Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (John Cleese)

Edgar Allan Poe’s work (Vincent Price)

EL James, Fifty Shades of Grey (Gilbert Gottfried)

Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (Charlton Heston)

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises (William Hurt)

Graham Greene, The End of the Affair (Colin Firth)

Homer, The Iliad (Derek Jacobi)

Homer, The Odyssey (Ian McKellen)

Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (Matt Damon)

Jack Kerouac, On the Road (Matt Dillon)

Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (Hugh Laurie)

Keith Richards, Life (Johnny Depp)

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (Ethan Hawke)

Neil Gaiman, Anansi Boys (Lenny Henry)

Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly (Paul Giamatti)

Samuel Pepys, The Diary of Samuel Pepys (Kenneth Branagh)

Stephen King, Desperation (Kathy Bates)

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (Maggie Gyllenhaal)

Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried (Bryan Cranston)

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (Jeremy Irons)



Abraham Verghese, Cutting For Stone (Sunil Malhotra)

Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (Tom Hollander)

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (Frank Muller)

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (Frederick Davidson)

Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby (Alex Jennings)

Cormac McCarthy, The Road (Tom Stechschulte)

Ellie Wiesel, Night (George Guidall)

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Alex Jennings)

George Orwell, 1984 (Simon Prebble)

The Harry Potter Books (Jim Dale or Stephen Fry)

Iain Banks, The Wasp Factory (Peter Capaldi)

Jane Austen’s novels (Juliet Stevenson  or Elizabeth Klett)

John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces (Barrett Whitener)

John Mortimer, Rumpole of the Bailey books (Leo McKern)

JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit (Rob Inglis)

Patrick O’Brian, Master and Commander: Aubrey/Maturin series (Patrick Tull or Simon Vance)

PG Wodehouse books (Jonathan Cecil or Martin Jarvis)

Richard Adams, Watership Downs (Ralph Cosham)

Stephen King’s books (any read by Frank Muller)

Victor Hugo, Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (George Guidall)



The Bible Experience (Angela Bassett, Cuba Gooding Jr, Samuel L. Jackson, Blair Underwood)

Emma Donoghue, Room (Michael Friedman, Ellen Archer, Robert Petkoff, Suzanne Toren)

Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Jeff Woodman, Barbara Caruso, Richard Ferrone)

Junot Diaz, The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao (Jonathan Davis and Staci Snell)

Kathryn Stockett, The Help (Jenna Lamia, Bahni Turpin, Octavia Spencer, Cassandra Campbell)

Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials (Pullman + full cast)


The full list can be found here: “What are some audiobooks you’d consider better experiences than actually reading the book?”

Expanding the Market for Audiobooks

Keep you in stitches 2

Watch out, multitaskers: a publisher campaign is targeting people whose hobbies make them a good fit for audiobooks. According to the New York Times, the website has been designed with such people in mind and even includes a “personal audiobook assistant” to recommend titles for runners, crafters, road trippers, business travelers, and techies. The piece is full of rich statistics about audiobook reading habits and recent sales figures (for many years, the lack of reliable data has bedeviled those of us writing about the audiobook market). The President of the Audiobook Publishers Association ends the piece on a provocative note by suggesting that audiobooks may no longer be “the stepchild of print.”

The piece appears in the “Advertising” rather than the “Books” section of the NYTimes. You can read Andrew Adam Newman’s article here: “Expanding the Market for Audiobooks Beyond Consumers.”



Word of Mouth

Michael Rosen

It’s heartening to see audiobooks getting mainstream media attention—two radio shows in the past week, in fact. The BBC Radio 4 series “Word of Mouth” did an episode on audiobooks that you can listen to online or download as a podcast. On the program, acclaimed children’s author Michael Rosen speaks to the publisher AudioGO, listens to Germaine Greer record an audio version of her feminist classic The Female Eunuch (nearly half a century after it was published), and interviews me about the format’s long history.

Disclaimer: for those of you who don’t know how these things work, the BBC journalists interviewed me for about 45 minutes, then whittled my comments down to the 5 or so minutes appearing on the show. All the brilliant bits were left out, of course.

You can listen to the episode here: “Audiobooks.”

The Growing Popularity of Audiobooks

Diane Rehm show image

“The Growing Popularity of Audiobooks” was the topic of the Diane Rehm Show on NPR this week. The show featured an entertaining and wide-ranging discussion of the format from its origins as talking books for the blind in the 1930s to today’s synthetic voices used on ereaders such as the Kindle. Curiously, the program begins with a clip from Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, a talking book made in Britain rather than America (which began making talking books a year ahead of Britain). I presume this is because the clip is easily available on the RNIB’s website. The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) has always been reluctant to make its recordings available to the public because of copyright restrictions.

The program featured four contributors including Michele Cobb (President of the Audio Publishers Association and VP at AudioGO), Peter Osnos (founder and editor-at-large of Public Affairs Books and author of the Atlantic piece “The Coming Audiobooks Boom”), John Schwartz (national correspondent for the NYTimes, where he has written several features on audiobooks), and Katherine Kellgren (an award-winning audiobooks narrator). All four contributors admirably challenged conventional thinking about audiobooks. For example, several of the contributors disputed the claim that listening to a book is not the same as reading by citing their own audio encounters. Osnos pointed out that listening allows you to concentrate in a way that’s not as easy to do with the page or screen, both of which present the temptation to skim. The contributors also delved into the question of what makes a good—and bad—narrator.

A few other points that stood out: Robert Caro’s recent bio of Lyndon B. Johnson is nearly 33 hours long (!); publishers now ensure that audiobooks and print books are published at the same time; and audiobooks are great for people with disabilities and children learning to read. Osnos also mentioned that he’s trying to persuade university presses to publish more books in audio formats. This is a problem with which I’ve made little headway in my own conversations with editors.

There are superb clips on the show’s website, too, from Harry Potter (read by Jim Dale), The Great Gatsby (read by Frank Muller), and Angela’s Ashes (read by Frank McCourt himself). Worth a listen.

Here’s a link to the show’s website and broadcast: “The Growing Popularity of Audiobooks.”

Free Short Stories


The quality and quantity of short stories available for free download continues to amaze me. You’re missing out on the chance to hear some remarkable tales if you’re not subscribing to the podcasts on this list:

The New Yorker Fiction Podcast

Monthly readings of New Yorker stories by New Yorker authors.

NPR Selected Shorts Podcast

Award-winning series of short fiction read by prominent actors.

Guardian Short Stories Podcast

Episodes featuring an interview with a well known author followed by a reading of one of the author’s favorite stories.

BBC International Short Story Award

Free recordings of the ten shortlisted stories read by popular actors.

Is Listening to Audio Books Really the Same as Reading?


We’re back to the usual question in a recent piece in Forbes: does listening count as reading? As I mentioned in this blog’s inaugural post, one goal of bringing together journalism about audiobooks is to move beyond a set of questions about audiobooks lazily recycled every time a journalist brings up the topic.

Olga Khazan is covering familiar ground here, but she deserves credit for going into greater depth than other accounts. Her piece marshals together some interesting evidence about the listening vs reading debate. For example, she cites William Irwin’s 2009 essay “Reading Audio Books,” scholarly studies of listening comprehension from the 1970s and 80s, and psychologists Dan Willingham and Arthur Graesser.

Khazan still ends up with the predictable ambivalence about whether reading or listening is superior. The answer? It depends. Sometimes reading is better, sometimes listening is better. But both are pretty good.

Too bad the piece doesn’t take on William Irwin’s comment about how audiobooks have been “woefully unaddressed by the academic community.” No more! Audiobook studies are beginning to take off: Audiobooks, Literature, and Sound Studies.

Read Khazan’s piece here: “Is Listening to Audio Books Really the Same as Reading?”

The Art of Listening


Like many listeners, Shawn Sensiba became an audiobook convert as a result of a long commute. Sometimes he regretted when the trip came to an end before the book.

Sensiba tackles the issue raised by most journalists: does listening to an audiobook count as reading? For Sensiba, they are simply different experiences. But you still need to pay close attention to the words either way. In addition, listening to books that he’d already read formed a major part of the author’s “heavy listening phase.”

Some of the author’s favorites: Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance (read by Michael Kramer), Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country (read by Michael York), the Harry Potter series read by Jim Dale, and anything read by Frank Muller (including Moby Dick!).

You’ll find Sensiba’s blog entry here: “The Art of Listening.”

Audiobooks: Are They Really the Same as Reading?

Last April, journalist Jenni Laidman discovered that an audiobook is more than just some guy reading. The epiphany came after hearing Ron Silverman read Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. That’s when she encountered the Nathan Zuckerman of her imagination.

Logging over 100 audiobooks gives Laidman the authority to ask the perennial question: isn’t reading a book superior to listening to it? She turns for advice to Don Katz, founder and CEO of Actors formerly told to “read bland” were given very different directions by Katz, who brought in marquee names to read books in a dramatic fashion: Kate Winslet, Anne Hathaway, Colin Firth, Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon, Nicole Kidman, and Hilary Swank, to name a few.

The next person turned to for advice is Arnold L. Glass, a professor of cognitive psychology at Rutgers, who has good things to say about both reading and listening. The piece concludes with clips from five great narrators, including Simon Slater’s reading of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

You can read the story here: “Audiobooks: Are they really the same as reading?”

The top five list is here: “Five great audiobook performances.”