Words on Cassette 1996

1985 pages,
ISBN: 0835237656

Post Your Opinion
How the West has been Taped
by Joseph Phelan

Is Western civilization on the verge of committing cultural suicide? University students no longer have a passion for serious reading, and departments of literature are in the hand of professors who stand in the way of those who want to understand and appreciate the great books. I am happy to report a countervailing trend taking place outside the academy, modest in size but worthy of note. Consider the rise of quality books on tape.
Recordings of plays, poetry, and fiction have been around for many decades but there has been a phenomenal increase in spoken word audio in the last ten years. Books on Cassette, the audio equivalent of Books in Print, was first published in 1985. It offered 11,500 records from 200 producers. In its 1996 edition, now called Words on Cassette, it lists 54,000 titles of spoken word cassettes from more than 1,800 producers. New companies have sprung up in North America and England to meet the demand for unabridged recordings of books of every sort.
Thousands of people (mostly in their late thirties to early fifties but also some high school and college students) are buying or renting, and listening to and enjoying them alone or with their families. The causes for this are unclear. George F. Will was, I believe, the first commentator to embrace books on tape in the early 1980s. He boasted that with his walkman he could read fifty-two extra books a year. The walkman, longer commutes to work, long car trips during the March break and summer vacation, the need to listen to something when jogging or lifestepping at the health club, these have all increased the demand for books on tape.
Incredible as it may be at a time when serious books seem to be read or even known by fewer and fewer people, when English departments are eliminating Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton as requirements for majors, and when the great books seem to be despised and neglected by those who ought to be their guardians in the academy, many of these same books are now available as audio cassettes. Every month more titles appear. One month it's Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the next month two different versions of the Aeneid. Major publishers like Penguin and Harper Collins have established major audio books divisions. Penguin's Classics on Cassette series promises a blockbuster summer with such title as Jane Eyre, Moby Dick, Nostromo, Anne of Green Gables, Paradise Lost, and Vanity Fair.
Harper Audio now owns the great Caedmon catalogue with its recordings of Shakespeare's plays and of the major twentieth-century American poets speaking their own verse. Caedmon was begun in 1952 with Dylan Thomas reading A Child's Christmas in Wales. The budget music company Naxos has brought out a new line of "classic literature with classical music". Recent titles include Don Quixote, The Idiot, Kim, Dangerous Liaisons, and War and Peace. In the audio bookstore in Toronto, Shakespeare and Homer outsell John Grisham and Tom Clancy.
A personal note. I had a very intelligent friend who graduated from university without ever taking a substantial course in the humanities. His parents wanted him to be a doctor, so he spent two unhappy years in medical school. After dropping out he went into the field of artificial intelligence with the idea that computers were God. Finally, he dropped out when he discovered that God is dead and that neither science nor the computer could replace Him. He was bitterly disappointed that he had wasted so much of his youth on these subjects and had not chosen to study literature. I tried to tell him that English departments were no longer the best places to develop a knowledge and appreciation of literature.
After this he struck out on his own. He discovered books on tape. Driving around North America he listened to everything he could get his hands on, from unabridged versions of Moby Dick and The Portrait of a Lady to the poetry of Rilke and the plays of T. S. Eliot. He used them as a bridge to serious reading. He soon surpassed me in the depth and breadth of his reading. He not only read two-thirds of The Man Without Qualities but also all of Thomas Bernhard that was available in English. It was from him that I discovered books on tape. He continued to read and listen to books. Last year when he was suffering from a devastating illness, he was never without one of his few consolations, his books. Finally when he could no longer read, he would still ask me to seek out new titles on tape.

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day for lack
of what is found there.

(William Carlos Williams, "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower")

I never could finish the Iliad in book form. But thanks to Penguin Classics on Cassette, I became well acquainted with Achilles and Hector, Priam and Helen. To use a much misused term properly, Homer resonates in my head. We know that Homer was meant to be read aloud.
Poetry should be heard. Otherwise, one often misses the music. Lionel Trilling wrote that "our first experience of The Waste Land should be of hearing it.this is not an evasion of what the poem communicates but a first happy step toward it." It makes a tremendous difference if the reader is the poet. When Eliot's recording of The Waste Land appeared in the late 1940s it was considered a revelation. It was as if before this, no-one had really heard the poem.
Drama is written to be performed. Many books, such as the great English novels of the nineteenth century, were written with the expectation that they would be read aloud. Children love to be read to, and perhaps the child in all of us is awakened when books are heard. One thing is certain in this uncertain age, everybody likes a story, and the great books tell the best stories.
Most of my generation has a guilty little secret. We never actually read Remembrance of Things Past because we thought it was boring and daunting, too long and intimidating. Thanks to Naxos we can have the Proust experience with which our more high-brow friends and teachers have been taunting us since college. Sample the first two books, Swann's Way and Swann in Love as you commute to work. You'll find out rather painlessly what Proust is really about. Let the roman-fleuve carry you along. Many will discover that Proust makes a wonderfully soigné companion in the car telling us about the narrator, Swann, Odette, and Baron Charlus.
In truth, the greatest obstacle standing in the way of most readers of this book is the style, both its transcontinental sentences and the fact that it is not constructed in short chapters that divide into convenient mouthfuls. Listening to the book overcomes this. One of the leading Proust scholars, Roger Shattuck, has written, "The best way to discover and respond to Proust's expressive voice, as well as the deliberate pacing of his narrative, is to hear the prose, to read it aloud...Without an auditory sense of the text, even in its most reflective and interior passages, the visual field of unrelieved print tends to become oppressive...He will bear reading aloud."
Let me provide a short overview of the highlights on audio, weighing such matters as abridgement, reading, pacing, and prices, and where to find tapes. Throughout I will include personal favourites and caveats.

What's out there? Truly, an embarrassment of riches. As a listener for over ten years, I was astounded in researching this article to find out what has been recorded. Practically every author, if not every work, that has been judged a classic or canonical has been attempted in some format, either unabridged or in the form of excerpts. (The great exception is Goethe.) In many cases, there is a choice of editions and readers.
Shakespeare on tape is a necessity if English literature as we have known it is to survive. "Greatness in the West's literature," Harold Bloom has well said, "centres on Shakespeare, who has become the touchstone for all who come before and after him, whether they are dramatists, lyric poets, or storytellers." Shakespeare as a dramatist worked for the stage, but as a poet he composed for the ear. On stage the requirements of gesture, movement, voice projection, and costume must be considered. But in a recording, the voice and its subtle inflections are paramount. Wherever actors are not trained to speak verse properly, these recordings are indispensable. They are also indispensable in this age of "director's theatre", where crackpot ideas and bloated egos ruin all too many production of the plays. My first real introduction to Shakespeare was listening to the great Caedmon production of Henry IV, Part One with Anthony Quayle as Falstaff and Sir Michael Redgrave as Harry Hotspur. Listening to Redgrave intone the letter speech in Act II, Scene ii still sends a tingle up my spine.
Happily the Bard has been especially well preserved on audio. All the plays, the sonnets, and the narrative poems are covered, thanks to the valiant efforts of Caedmon Records and the Shakespeare Society in the United States, and Argo Records and the British Council and Oxford University Press in Great Britain. In the early 1960s each of these companies separately assembled some of the foremost Shakespearean actors of the time for recordings of the complete corpus. Since then other production have been recorded. Durkin Hayes Audio is releasing six plays produced by the CBC with veterans of the Stratford, Ontario Shakespearean Festival.
In the cases of Hamlet and King Lear, there are at least four editions from which to choose. And what choices: John Gielgud, Richard Burton, Paul Scofield, or Kenneth Branagh as the melancholy prince who learns that "readiness is all"; again, Sir John, Sir Alec Guinness, Paul Scofield, or Canada's John Colicos as the raging monarch whose fall and rise teaches that "ripeness is all." Some of these productions are studded with dream casts that could hardly be assembled on any stage. We have at our finger tips the cream of the British theatre during one of its peak periods. How many of us will get to see actors of this stature in these parts in our lifetime? Or even a better than decent production of most of these plays?
I have already mentioned Homer. There is an excellent abridgement of the Iliad in the much-acclaimed Robert Fagles translation read by another fine British actor, Derek Jacobi, best known to Canadians from the television I, Claudius. There are two unabridged verse versions as well, but to my ear Penguin's, even with the cuts, is the best. Included is an excellent sixty-four-page introduction to the poem by the classical scholar Bernard Knox. (This is a feature that other audio producers would be wise to include with certain works.) Apparently this edition is the top bestseller in the audio bookstore in Toronto. The Odyssey has not been so fortunate. The folks at Penguin chose to record the prosy E. V. Rieu translation, probably because they already owned the copyright and because, as Rieu said in his preface, this was Homer made "easy reading" for those unfamiliar with the Greek world. The result is a rather pedestrian trip that makes the Greek world sound too much like our own.
Among the Greek plays, three recordings are worthy of note. Oedipus Rex is a record of the legendary Stratford, Ontario production directed by Sir Tyrone Guthrie and starring that fine actor Douglas Campbell. The translation is by Yeats. This is the production that put the Stratford Shakespearean Festival on the map. Antigone was recorded in the Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald version with a cast headed by Dorothy Tutin and Eileen Atkins. There is also a rather campy Lysistrata with Stanley Holloway and Hermione Gingold. Some other productions of the other plays are available but the actors and translators are not identified. This irritating oversight does not inspire confidence in the productions themselves.
The Divine Comedy has been recorded in two unabridged versions. Penguin Audio Books has announced an abridged version read by Richard Pasco of the Royal Shakespeare Company. A brief tour of the Inferno, Cantos One through Six has an excellent guide: Ian Richardson, the villain of the British television series House of Cards. I have not heard either of the unabridged versions; the readers listed are unfamiliar to me. So are the translators. This is one of the problem areas in audio. Publishers sometimes choose an inferior translation over a better one because it is in the public domain. Alas, to have to listen to a mundane Paradise because of a parsimonious publisher. To compound the insult, unabridged editions have typically used non-actors and all too often they are mediocre. Sometimes the choice of readers is downright terrible. (Walter Zimmerman ruined Turgenev's Fathers and Sons for me with his uninspired delivery and inappropriate flat Midwestern accent.) Reviews of new audio books can be found in Audio File, which focuses on the presentation: narrative voice and style, vocal character, appropriateness of the audio format, and enhancement of the text.
Chaucer, that other giant wellspring of English literature, is not quite as well served on audio. There seems to be no truly unabridged versions of The Canterbury Tales (the one listed in Words on Cassette claims to be unabridged but includes only twelve tales and, as if to make up for this, sports a commentary by a professor). However, there are several attractive abridgements of the most important tales. You can even listen to some of the tales in Middle English. Modern versions of the bawdy Miller's Tale and the scarifying Pardoner's Tale are read by Stanley Holloway and Michael MacLiammoir respectively, and with considerable panache. The gutsy Wife of Bath's Tale is performed by Dame Peggy Ashcroft in the grand manner. I have found "performed by" as opposed to "read by" to be a real distinction in spoken word audio. This is a great actor interpreting the role. (Another standout performance is Anthony Quayle's version of Heart of Darkness. Although it is severely abridged, I prefer it to the other versions available because this classically trained actor brings out the Shakespearean rhythms of Conrad's prose, as Richard Thomas, for example, on his recording does not. I will never forget Quayle's heartrending delivery of that all too familiar line "The horror, the ho-rror!")
Milton, the only real poetic rival to Shakespeare, has also been well served on audio. We have several abridged versions of Paradise Lost. My favourite on Argo stars Michael Redgrave as Satan (truly one of his greatest roles) with Prunella Scales (of Fawlty Towers) playing Eve. The major poetry is available, as well as his only play, Samson Agonistes, again with Sir Michael.
Cervantes's inexhaustible Don Quixote is available in an unabridged version. Considering the length of this book (the Books on Tape version contains twenty-seven cassettes), listeners will find the translation and the reader to be especially important. Vladimir Nabokov, a ferocious stickler about translations, singled out in his Lectures on Don Quixote the Samuel Putnam translation, warning his students against the Walter Starkie version. Unfortunately, the folks at Books on Tape chose the acceptable but undistinguished Starkie. My idea of hell would be to have to listen to a dull reader labouring over a pedestrian translation of this great story for over thirty hours. Naxos has a three-tape version read with bravado by the excellent Canadian actor Edward de Souza, a veteran of the stages in Stratford, Ontario, and London. But it is, perforce, the bare bones of the story with all the rich details, the intricate subplots, and the tales within tales draconically cut. Perhaps abridging this book is as mad as any of Don's exploits?
Don Quixote is often considered "the first modern novel". How do the great nineteenth-century novels fare? The short answer is, Very well for the most part. Among the giants represented are Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Dostoevsky, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Leo Tolstoy; also recorded are the Brontes, Thackeray, Wilkie Collins, Defoe, Dumas, Hugo, Mary Shelley, and Robert Louis Stevenson.
Considerations of space force me to limit myself to two great nineteenth-century novelists. First, the ubiquitous Jane Austen. One is stunned by the industriousness of the audio book companies. I count over sixty entries in the 1995 edition of Words on Tape under her name. And these were produced before Austenmania got into full swing with the release of two movies and a television series in the past months.
The six novels are available in unabridged, abridged, and in some cases dramatized versions by the BBC. Here one can follow one's own taste and judgement. But one must also use some common sense. Glenda Jackson can be a powerful actress in the right part, but how persuasive would she be as the narrator of Persuasion? Flo Gibson does the readings on all the Books on Tape version, and her voice and inflections are impeccable. Among the abridgements I especially like Geraldine McEwan with her delightful sense of comedy and ironic phrasing doing Persuasion. This is perhaps how Jane herself sounded reading her work to her family circle. Even the minor Austen, Lady Susan, Love and Friendship, and the uncompleted works Sanditon and The Watsons have been taped.
There are over a hundred titles of the works of Dickens on tape. Innumerable versions of A Christmas Carol, abridged and unabridged versions of, among others, Bleak House, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Hard Times, Oliver Twist, The Pickwick Papers, and A Tale of Two Cities . While the short novels of Austen lend themselves gracefully to abridgement, the hefty volumes of Dickens novels do not fare well. The shorter novels work, especially when the reader is as good as Paul Scofield; but neither the early Pickwick, nor the middle Dombey & Son, and especially not the late, intricate masterpiece Our Mutual Friend, can be listened to without confusion in the abridgements produced by Dove running at just three hours. The producers might have included a summary of the plot in voice-over or print. Perhaps the forthcoming abridged versions from Penguin will be more thoughtfully edited. They will be twice the length of the Dove editions.
Much of the great poetry of the English language has been recorded. In the 1960s, Argo undertook to produce sixty long-playing records devoted to each of the major English poets from Chaucer to Yeats. Many twentieth-century poets have been captured on record. Especially noteworthy was the attempt by Caedmon to tape the voices of major American poets. So we can hear, among others, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, e. e. cummings, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Langston Hughes, Robert Lowell, and Sylvia Plath.
Twentieth-century fiction on audio, especially the great modernists, is a mixed bag. James Joyce's Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man work wonderfully well. But I find Ulysses in all three versions, including an incredible unabridged version, impossible. Joyce himself reads passages from Finnegans Wake and his poetry on another tape. The two greatest novels of Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway, work very well; as do the novels of her friend E. M. Forster A Room with a View, A Passage to India, and Howard's End.
Canadian literature continues to claim its rightful place in the audio book field. Five of Robertson Davies's books are recorded unabridged, including the delightful collection of ghost stories, High Spirits, read by Christopher Plummer. L. M. Montgomery, Morley Callaghan, Elizabeth Smart, W. O. Mitchell, Al Purdy, Irving Layton, W. P. Kinsella, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, Nino Ricci, Carol Shields, and Douglas Coupland are all represented. In some cases you can hear these authors reading their work. I especially treasure Alice Munro's reading of the title stories from Progress of Love and Friend of My Youth. Some of the CBC's Massey lectures are being released, including Conor Cruise O'Brien's On the Eve of the Millennium (1994) and John Ralston Saul's The Unconscious Civilization (1995).
The good news is that a large portion of what's worth recording has been attempted. The bad news is that not all of these attempts work; nor are all the successful attempts easily available. Unabridged novels tend to be very expensive. Of the two major American companies that produce complete recordings of books, Recorded Books permits rentals to Canada, while Books on Tape will only sell them here.
Books on tape, like other books, go out of print. Although most bookstores now have audio sections, they usually carry pulp fiction, and advice on self-help and how to succeed in business without really trying. But there are good audio stores in Toronto, Burlington, and Montreal. Some of these stores rent as well as sell. They do a brisk mail-order business throughout Canada. A Shakespeare recording can be purchased for seventeen dollars from Durkin Hayes; other companies charge around twenty-five. Most of the abridged works I have mentioned are competitively priced: the new Penguin Classics are under twenty dollars, and the Naxos line comes in around twenty-five dollars as well, for cassettes. Compact discs are always more expensive; they have the advantage of better sound and easy access to specific sections. This is especially nice when one is searching for a specific passage, speech, or poem.
Public libraries and university libraries usually have good selections and are likely to respond to intelligent requests. I once occupied a lonely winter on Cape Cod by travelling from town to town sampling the audio books in each public library. Every library had tapes, every collection was different, and most were very well stocked.
This summer you can transform those excruciatingly boring drives with which most of us begin our vacations into an odyssey conducted by Homer himself. If I finally get through Nostromo, I'll have Penguin Classics on Cassette to thank, and then of course I'll thank Joseph Conrad.


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