About that Ulysses Recording

Posted on November 22, 2009 by | Posted in correspondence, Librivox Community Podcast, News | Comments: 25 Comments on About that Ulysses Recording

One of the oddities in the LibriVox catalog is our recording of James Joyce’s Ulysses. It gets not-infrequent complaints, well-deserved I suppose if a listener is expecting, oh, an audiobook of James Joyce’s Ulysses. While some of the chapters of that book are read straight up, it was an early project where “creative interpretations” were encouraged, and there are some strange chapters in there. The first chapter, one I participated in, seems to stop many listeners in their tracks.

The recorders of chapter one have been called: fools, jerks, jocks, idiots, criminals and worse; the recording has been called: an insult to Joyce, an insult to listeners, an insult to literature, a travesty, a hoax, a bad joke, and embarrassing, among other things. One listener suggested that his dog would do a better job of making the recording.

Of course I tell every complainant that we’ll put up alternate versions along with the originals if they wish to record it for us, as is standard LibriVox policy; so far no one has produced another recording for us.

Still I thought it worthwhile to give a bit of context to our version of Ulysses.

LibriVox started in late August 2005, really got rolling in September 2005; by the end of October 05, we’d completed eight (yes, 8) books: Conrad’s Secret Agent; Frank L Baum’s Road to Oz; Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground; Washington Irving’s Old Christmas, Henry James’ International Episode (both requests from the Internet Archive), Call of the Wild, Frankenstein, and PG Wodehouse’s Psmith in the City. All reasonable, approachable, easy books. And relatively short.

And so when I proposed Ulysses as a book we should tackle, in early November 2005, just two months and change after LibriVox came into being … there was something of a gasp in our little (at the time) community of free-public-domain-audiobook makers … Ulysses? … Joyce’s Ulysses? Yikes. We were only figuring out how to manage more than a handful of projects at the time. We were just a bunch of strangers who thought it would be fun to make free audiobooks, and we were cobbling together a way to get it done by anyone in the world who wanted to help out. But: Ulysses?

In the spirit of taking on impossible tasks (our objective, after all, is to record every public domain text in the universe and give the audiobooks away for free), we jumped in. Ulysses project start date: November 8, 2005; finish date: June 16, 2007 (19 months later).

Because Ulysses seemed like such a crazy project, we added some special rules to go along with the recording of this, probably the most intimidating book in the English language:

1.editing allowed but not required … you can record it as is. bad sound, backround noise, whatever, will add to the experience, I *think* JJ would approve
2. extra points for recording in a pub or public place (on the street is good)
3. bonus points if you record in dublin
4. you are encouraged to get others to help you record your chapter
5. more extra points for getting several people to record with you in a pub.
6. square those points if those other people are strangers
7. Target completion date: midnight, June 14 (2006) [actual completion: June 16, 2007]

[You can see the forum discussions from the project thread when it was launched].

And with that set of special guidelines, off we went, with little regard for anything except trying to make a free audio version of Ulysses, or at least something like that. This project was and is truly different than anything else LibriVox did – because we were so liberal in approach to the text. But to me, anyway, it paralleled the madness of LibriVox itself. We were driven not by thoughts of who might listen, but rather by the wonderful craziness of the idea of getting a bunch of amateurs to try to record the darned thing; and that crazy idea was translated, I can report, into wonderful craziness on the evening of the recording of Chapter One of Ulysses, at my house. An indescribable night of art and performance and bacchanalia, at the end of which there was an audio document, an mp3. It would take a year-and-a-half before the rest of the chapters would be finished, and published. Would anyone listen? Who knew? Who cared? [I can’t remember what the total downloads we’d had in those first couple of months of LibriVox, but it couldn’t have been more than a few hundred, possibly a few thousand].

As for the other chapters of our Ulysses, there is so much variety in that audiobook: from the chaotic and impromptu, to the straight, to the ambitiously artistic (see: Chapter 15f [mp3]) and the abstract (see: Chapter 18 [mp3]).

The point with LibriVox in the early days (and, I would argue, still) was just to make these recordings, and to keep making them, to encourage more people to make, and give away, recordings of books they cared about, until we’d finished recording all the books there were to record. We just hoped that someone somewhere might find some use for some of these audiobooks at some point. Our focus though has always been on the readers, the volunteers, the people making recordings – they are our true constituents; that the rest of the world gets a library of free audiobooks has always seemed to me to be a wonderful fringe benefit of our true work, which is helping people make and give away recordings of texts they love.

And of course, we’ve always had the following policy: if you do not like any of our recordings, please record an alternate version for us and we’ll post it along with the first.

Still, knowing that Ulysses is a strange beast, our catalog page states the following:

NOTE: Because of the nature of this project, there was a bending of usual LibriVox procedures: pub-like background noise was encouraged, as well as creative group readings; and no editing was required, so in places there may be some accidental variation from the original text. Listener be warned!

So, if you find yourself listening to our recording of Ulysses & agreeing with our previous correspondents who think we are insulting poor James Joyce’s memory by allowing such an audiobook to exist, here are some practical responses:

  1. We encourage multiple recordings of the same text. Your version of any chapter of Ulysses would be welcomed heartily (so far we’ve had no takers for adding other versions of the existing Ulysses chapters … which is another good reason to have such an idiosyncratic first chapter – perhaps it is so hard to listen to that someone finally will get fed up and gives us another version … two-and-a-half years later, we’re still waiting).
  2. There is, as of today, a catalog of 2879 non-Ulysses audiobooks for you to choose from – I can recommend a few if you like
  3. There is no other recording like Ulysses in the LibriVox catalog – everything else is recorded to the best of our ability to conform to the text (Oh, actually somewhere in there is a New Year’s recording of Shakespeare’s Sonnet XXVIII [mp3] [text] that is not far off the Ulysses aesthetic).

So, perhaps you won’t like our recording of Ulysses. Or, perhaps you might pour yourself one of your favourite beverages, and sit down to listen to, and enjoy a chaotic performance of Joyce’s chaotic work.

But the thing we wish, more than anything else, is that you would make a recording for us: of Ulysses, or any other public domain text that you love dearly, and think ought to be available in audio format to the whole world, for free.



  1. Annie Coleman Rothenberg says:

    Well said, Hugh! Ulysses was so much fun to record for me because we ignored all our usual rules. I’m sure eventually LibriVox will have a “straight” recording of Ulysses but I still love this one as a tribute to the early days of LV.

  2. hugh says:

    Hi Annie! Yes there was something liberating about that…was a very nice trip down the old memory lane thinking about it !

  3. miette says:

    Recording Ulysses was probably the most fun I’ve had reading for Librivox (and I assure you that’s not a statement to be taken lightly). I hold Ulysses in quite a lot of esteem, and think that it’s one of those books very much best served by an eyes-to-paper reading.

    Which is to say that even if ours were a vanilla recording, I wouldn’t hope it to be someone’s first exposure to the text, and would strongly encourage a potential listener to have the text nearby at all times.

    And that said, I suppose if people feel they’re not getting their money’s worth, we can always offer a refund?

  4. Shlomi says:

    It took me quite some time to finish listening to this recording — on my evening walks, while cooking, before bedtime, in the bathroom — and I think it’s absolutely brilliant, and very fitting for this rewarding, labyrinthine narrative.
    Many thanks!

  5. hugh says:

    @miette: hah – so some people get thru chapter 1!

    @shlomi: wonderful … 32 hours of audio – I certainly haven’t listened to the whole thing!

  6. valleyview says:

    For the last 3 years Librivox has become one of my best friends. I’m nearly 75, one bad thing is my eyesight has been getting dimmer every year, one good thing is there are great volunteers at Librivox making my days brighter. I would like to comment on your commentary, Hugh. I have over 400 books in my Librivox library. Its a daily enjoyment for me to listen 8 to 10 hours. I have 3 different mp3 players, each with a different story. So I can say I do have some listening experience. I do hope those who read your commentary do not get the impression that liberties are freely taken and books are put out only to mark up another book finished. My SINCERE thankyou to all readers, it is obvious you are devoted to your unpaid task, putting your heart and soul into your readings. Your committment is appreciated.

  7. hugh says:

    valleyview, thanks so much for the comment. it’s always wonderful to hear from listeners.

  8. Chris says:

    I didn’t know this recording at all, and I just found it in my podcast feed this morning and started listening. I only found the explanation later, but as soon as it started playing I knew what it was. That is a real measure of its extremely high quality. What a wonderfully expressive way to vocalize a stream of consciousness! I was enthralled all the way through. I’ve never been able to read Joyce, but thanks to this recording, I think it will have to go on my to-be-read list. My hearty congratulations to all the readers, and the editor who put it together. I know how hard it must have been to have created this piece of art, but to my mind it was totally worth it. Thank you, both to the creators for making this, and to Hugh for bringing it to my attention.

  9. robert berry says:

    I like this recording quite a bit and am glad to hear more about how it came together. The criteria you set up for how it was to be recorded definitely adds to it’s flavor.
    I not really sure why it is that people want to focus so much attention on how interpretations of the book MUST be handled. There seems to be a certain dogmatism in that which doesn’t really hold up well to the point of the novel or Joyce as an author. but we run into it on our site, with the comicbook adaptation of ULYSSES, now and again. I think that part of the problem is that the book is such a puzzle, such a challenge for people to conquer, that there’s a feeling that someone else seeing things a different way might, to some, mean they’re own way of seeing is called to question.
    But it’s not, really. It’s about the quality of different voices and “the shout in the street.” Parallax and all of that. Your methods for staging the recordings fit that spirit perfectly, to my mind. Good job, guys.

  10. Pleonic says:

    I didn’t know this story but it just makes me want to record Librivox books all the more. This version of Ulysses is a marvelous piece of performance art! In fact, I’d say Librivox itself is too!

  11. Anonymous says:

    it’s the first chapter. cannot stomach it. would not presume to do better, but there must be many who can. please, someone….

  12. Kenneth says:

    Ulysses was my third or four LibriVox book. I read the note and thought the idea of having pub sounds in the background would be interesting, but I found the first chapter too confusing. The switching of readers within the chapter was a problem for me. It felt as if a new character had entered the scene. It just did not work for me. I deleted it and downloaded a new book.

    I would hope most new people would not try Ulysses as their first LibriVox book. I would be afraid some might think they were all like it.

    While I may not like this reading of Ulysses, I still think this site is great. I am always promoting it to people I meet. Keep up the good work.

  13. Paul Renault says:

    Before I listened to this book, I did read the warning and I was ready to listen to it in the spirit it was recorded.

    Aside from all the other criticisms others have given, the main issue I had with the recording was that there was too much background noise, and the volume level of the speakers was all over the place. Too bad, Ulysses is one of the great pieces of literature humanity has given us, I had already read it, seen the film, and I was looking forward to listening to it again and especially Molly’s soliloquy. Alas, I had to stop listening to it after a few chapters.

    Y’see, I listen to Librivox books in the car, not the quietest environment. If there’s background noise in the recording, it gets added to the already too-high noise in the car and makes the words unintelligible and all the work that goes into the recording is lost…

  14. Fred says:

    Thanks for this. Very good over all. Could have done with a little less out-of-tune violin, which was very distracting, but apart from that very enjoyable listening.

  15. Brendan says:

    I don’t have home Internet access so the whole ftp thing is difficult for me but you’re welcome to add my recording of Ulysses to librivox if you wish – http://joycecast.podomatic.com.

  16. Chuck says:

    It’s true that the quality of the recordings is relatively poor. There are many distracting sounds and misreadings. I had to stop listening shortly into the first chapter. Objectively speaking, the criticism is deserved, but how do you criticize a bad gift?: “Thank you.”

  17. Ralph Mange says:

    Call of the wild is a really great book I am certainly pleased to see it here. I visit the library often but love having the audio books for travel and vacations.

  18. James Mites says:

    Ulysses is a great book I read it in high school but it will be fun to listen to it as an audio book.

  19. Estelle says:

    Gack. This has got to be one of the worst Librivox recordings I’ve encountered yet and I’m a great fan of this site. One wonders if the readers had pre-read the text at all. Or were they perhaps under the affluence of incohol? Maybe it’s that dreadful violin that evokes drunkenness, a night of drowning one’s woes. I do often wonder why a person would want to record in a foreign language in which they have strong accent from their mother tongue, no idea how to pronounce even slightly difficult words or where on earth to place emphasis in a sentence. The mystery remains, because there’s quite a lot of that about and some in this chapter.

  20. David says:

    I havent listened to this yet, but having read the summary, I would like the whole of the libravox collective to know that I am both impressed and filled with respect for their non-traditional approach to such an enigmatic book. The presence of such thinking, feeling individuals who love the literature they work with only encourages me further to become involved with the audiobook project.

  21. shima says:

    would you please send me a copy of text of ylusses and a copy of audio of It.I can not download it.I wrote my email below.That will be your kindness to send me this book.

  22. I tried to tackle Ulysses many years ago while in high school, then again in college but I think I was too uptight in those days. Today I randomly selected the Audiobooks iPhone app to give it another try as an audio book. Just my luck that I’d pick the one recording read by a bunch of rambling strangers in a pub.

    Hell, I think I’ve got a shot at it this time!

  23. Gem says:

    Well, I will just say one thing, hang them if they didn´t like it!!

    You are doing a brilliant work to be proud of!!!. I knew about you as a Cambridge English student. Being from Spain i thought it would be nice to relate the word to a sound, to help me improving. As far as i remember i have read, with you in the background, a few novels, some better, some worse but even if i didn´t like a read or a reader (not all of us like the same tone of voice, etc) i always kept in mind that i was reading with audio a book that someone liked and tried to do the best out of it. Furthermore, he or she read it for us to listen!!!! Now i´m going for the Ulysses that if i had already thought it would be difficult to read, i would not expect something different from an audio but people who enjoy reading and did the best out of it.

    Many thanks for your work.

    Ps: Hope you understood my Spaniglish oops…

  24. Randy says:

    OK; this helps explain it. I did make it through the first hour. I made it here looking for a way to log my complaint. However, after reading this explaination, I’ll try another couple chapters. Further, a friend and I are starting plans to record that first hour again. We’ll pour a couple drams of Bushmills 16yo and put on a CD of appropriate Irish background music and have at it. Once done, I hope it would meet with approval. I appreciate the “artistic approach” but it is about the result, eh? You don’t really want the method to get in the way of the author’s original message/mood, but to complement it. In the end, this feels like the audio equivalent of when some high school decides to paint a community wall mural – some things are OK, some not too polished, overall effect is “artsy-crapsie”. (My comments at the time were that it sounded like a fraternity had read it as payment for losing some wager!) Keep up the good work, otherwise, though.

  25. Cashew says:

    Thanks! I love this approach and the first chapter is my absolute favourite of all the many hours of Librivox recordings I have heard. It greatly increased my enjoyment of the book – though not so much my understanding – but no great loss here as my understanding was pitiful beforehand. Thank you for your courage and creativity!

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