Literary Readings and What We Should Do About Them

Posted on October 8, 2008 by | Posted in News, on the web | Comments: 10 Comments on Literary Readings and What We Should Do About Them

I recently came upon an article decrying the awfulness of most literary readings, pointed at by Frank Wilson of Books, Inq. Frank thinks it’s not all literary readings that make ears bleed, but that North American (versus British, Irish and other) writers have little command of the oral medium, and thinks that’s the problem.

I have no idea if he’s right, but I do know that reading a few books for LibriVox will help any writer read better aloud. Maybe publishers should require that all novelists record at least two chapters for librivox, as part of their contract?



  1. Sam (stinssd) says:

    I’ll skip the traditional elitism/populism discussion to state that any experience in recording or public speaking is bound to help a person’s skill improve. However, only with consistent, encouraging feedback can a person see many of their own mistakes to improve them.

  2. Bob says:

    I recently spent a few days at the annual Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry festival in New Jersey. A great number of the “best” American poets where there, including several past and the present Poet Laureates. My experience was that one reader began to sound like another. After listening for a day most began to sound like one another. Still, a few people, individual and expressive, did shine through. Generally, personally, speaking, I’ve felt that poets, even fiction authors are usually not very good at reading their own work. I believe it takes experience and training (a strong determination to be an excellent reader) to be the best one can be. This is not elitism. In every field there are those who are better at what they do than others. There are very few who are considered “the best.”

    As in any other craft, not everyone is “good” at what they do —few are “excellent.” By this I’m speaking of a fundamental connection to the piece of literature —which includes a full understanding of the form and the content of what one’s reading. The same is true of any “audiobook” reader. You like a “reader” or you don’t. It’s all about making a connection with the people you’re reading to. A person is either naturally expressive or connective or one isn’t. One can also be partly connected, with lots of heart but little technique or experience. I think the important thing is not Americans vs Brits or any other gymnastic comparisons. Such comparisons are divisive and really don’t get to the root of “connectivity.” It has more to do with reading what is most appropriate for the person who’s reading, what is closer to one’s roots. In this way a reader can make a personal connection —and the listener can connect to that. LibriVox IS a great training ground for people to just have fun, to see if this is something that a person can build upon, if one is made for this sort of thing, or it’s just a phase of one’s life.

    Incidentally, I’d venture to say that there are hoards of mediocre, even “lousy” British readers. This whole point is actually immaterial (not that I’m certain what the point is.) Anyone speaking about the subject of reading literature aloud without a considerable carload verifiable experience with carloads of readers in different venues and mediums, is just blowing smoke. It seems to come down to personal experience: Do you like a particular reader reading a particular work? I recently read a series of “listeners reviews” of an audiobook of Phillip Roth’s “American Pastoral.” Many listeners didn’t like the narrator, Ron Silver. I’m listening to the book now. It took no more than 10 minutes of listening to conclude that perhaps no one could have done a better job with this book than Ron Silver. He did his job perfectly, considering the book, his background and training and etc. It’s really about commitment and willingness to push to do the best, no matter what the “reader” has to do to push through her/his own barriers to get there. A reader senses this. Connection’s the thing, individual connection.

  3. Peter says:

    Honestly, I discovered this project by reading bad reviews. Complaints referenced problems with inconsistency between different readers as well as bad readers in general. I felt this was inconsequential in comparison to what it offered. Hundreds of free audiobooks and a way to help that is simple, straight forward, and legal. Some discontinuity is to be expected. This is the way user-driven projects like this evolve. Look at wikipedia. As librivox continues to grow, it will become more refined, no doubt. Bad reviews are something to consider, but something to worry about. For example, the first review I saw said the readers of The Odyssey pronounced the names differently. Solution: advise readers to listen to other readers of the same work in progress to ensure consistency.

    As a random wanderer of the web, I can offer an observer/consumer perspective for you. The couch potato in me read a bad review but still got the idea of what libravox is and grunted affirmatively; glad to know it exists.

  4. Stephen says:

    I think that Librivox is doing a great job. However it is true that some of the voices British and American or whatever Nationality background for that matter are just not of a good enough quality to make the book/audiotext listenable beyond a chapter.

    I have favourite voices on both sides of the water, and I think the key to a enjoyable listen is familiarity with the work/subject matter of the work and experience or practice at measured reading aloud. Contrary to common belief there is a correct way to pronounce both American and British English. The rarity of a good voice makes it all the more worth while giving all of the recordings at least one fair try!

  5. Jo says:

    I see some commenters suggest that reading fro Librivox is a way to practice in order to become a good reader. Perhaps that’s true, but as a reader, listening to non-Native speakers of English read with thick inpenetrable accents is not at all pleasurable. An unpleasant voice is one thing, but one impossible to understand is much more serious. Perhaps there should be a panel of reviewers to listen to each episode before release in order to ensure good sound quality and easy comprehension of the reading. If such a panel exists, it needs to take its role more seriously.

  6. Sydney Carten says:

    I agree with the previous comment about non-native speakers of English. I think it would be better for them to do readings for Librivox in their native language.

    I won’t name names or try to embarrass anyone, but there was one classic novel I was looking forward to enjoying but found there was little joy to be had in listening to the Librivox version.

    The reader of most of the chapters pronounced so many words so very differently from ANY accepted standard that I had to stop the recording frequently to decipher what was just said before I could proceed. A little bit of an accent I wouldn’t mind, but this was WAAY too much!

  7. hugh says:

    Hi re: non-native speakers…

    Our objective is to:
    “To make all books in the public domain available, for free, in audio format on the internet.”

    In order to do that, we help whoever wishes to record public domain books record them. Our criteria are:
    1. text must be published
    2. text must be public domain
    3. audio must conform to the text

    The rest is up to the whims, passions, desires of the volunteers who wish to record, and we make no judgments about who should or shouldn’t record.

    We are not so much a provider of audiobooks, as a platform that helps people contribute to an objective they wish to support. That you get to listen to the results is a sort of wonderful fringe benefit.

    Three other relevant things to note:
    – you may search the catalog by reader
    – you may search the catalog by collaborative OR solo projects

    And most importantly:
    – we accept multiple recordings of the same text. Perhaps you might consider recording a version for us?

  8. Usha says:

    Gabriel -I am looking for the Reader named Gabriel. he read “The Heavenly Life” by James Allen. I would like to know of any other books read by him. Please take a moment to help. email me at if you know his last name, or of any other of his readings.

    thanks. Usha

  9. hugh says:

    Hi Usha:
    Catalog –> More Search Options –> Reader=”Gabriel” …


    with only the one poem credited.

  10. justin po says:

    Hello! I am Justin

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