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:
- 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).
- 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
- 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.