They were called books-on-tape when I first heard them. My brother and I were sullen, dyspeptic travelers, and so when our mother drove us to the family reunion in Kentucky every year, she set space in the car aside for large, black-and-yellow, hard-laminated plastic binders full of cassettes. Each one was a “book” and they all had the same hybrid smell of library shelf and 1980s car interior (stale smoke and spilled soda), shot through with the tang of off-gassing plastic. They were bulky and ugly. The binders were functional, brutally so, cased in plastic so hard it could cut your finger. Some of the tapes inside them played at the wrong speed or not at all, so that you missed whole chapters of the story. I loved them SO MUCH. I listened to my favorites over and over and over again. They made anything more interesting — chores, drives, homework, video games. They even made stories you already knew more interesting, and not the least because of unpredictable flaws that turned up in cassettes that had the reached the end of their library shelf-life; after enough people have checked out The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, you’re going to start hearing the narration on Side B playing ever so softly beneath the narration on Side A.
Books-on-tape were a new art form when I was young. Production values were sketchy, their audience perhaps still undefined. I remember a Winnie the Pooh book-and-tape set my mother played us at bed time; the narrator read along in his flexible, well-worn actor’s voice as my brother and I followed the words in an accompanying book. But halfway through side one, a drowsy child’s voice, faint and off-mic, asked, “Why?” And today I remember that child’s sleepy, unselfconscious monosyllable more than the actor’s contoured narration or the story itself. And I have questions. I had them even then. Was the narrator reading to a child on his lap (just as he was reading to me as I sat on my mother’s)? Was the narrator reading the book in his house? Was this his grandchild? Why didn’t anyone take the child’s voice off the recording? I didn’t know the answers, but it was my favorite part of the book; the part where the narrator became a person, someone who was reading to someone else. It made the listening experience intimate and personal. And it was a shared experience. The child on the recording knew the same intimacy that I did, hearing the story from the same person, wondering why things happened in that story the way they did.
I grew up with audiobooks. That is to say, audiobooks grew up and so did I. I went to high school and got my own car. They moved to CD, got sleeker binders. I went to college and got a library job. My hometown library had a small and arcane collection of audiobooks, but at college the library’s audiobook shelves teemed with possibility. I remember listening to George Guidall read John Irving’s A Widow for One Year or Theodor Bikel’s The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco or James Mason’s narration of Graham Greene’s The Third Man while I reshelved books or roamed the stacks.
And on and on. Audible.com popped up about the time I got my first real job and for us both, still on our parallel tracks, the horizons seemed to expand. My new job involved a lot of travel, so I logged many in-flight hours with John Lee, Wanda McCaddon, Juliet Stevenson and Grover Gardener (still my favorite).
Then I started recording my own. There were a lot of books I wanted to read (and re-read) and no audiobooks available for them. I had a USB microphone already and I reasoned that if I were to read them into the Audacity software, and then edit the files, I would have the books when I wanted them. I would have to listen to my own voice reading them and not David Colacci’s, but (so went my reasoning) don’t you read books in your own voice when you read them to yourself? Isn’t the reading voice that lives in your brain your voice?
Well, the jury that lives in my brain is still out on that. I’d much rather have Grover Gardener’s voice in there, and I think he guest reads. In any case, I had no idea what i was in for. The amount of editing for a perfectly narrated book is still daunting. And I was not a perfect reader. But it turned out that reading books into a microphone was intensely satisfying. And I still remember the moments of voice-editing victory with Audacity — learning just what compression to use, mastering fades, locating mouth sounds by sight. It’s all a fiddly and intensely-focused business, but it’s hard to qualify how rewarding it is. I started recording books for Librivox.org and now I’m recording for ACX. I always have audiobooks with me, but now the mic tags along, too.
I’m still new to the business end of this, but my first commercially-produced audiobook will be coming out any moment now, and I’m recording three others as well. I’m also working on individual projects, and I hope to get the audio rights for those by the end of the year. I used to think I knew what that child on the Winnie the Pooh recording was feeling when I heard his stray voice on that tape. It’s encouraging to find that the same intimacy is available to the narrator, too. Audiobooks should always be available for that kind of intimate connection. I’m glad it’s my job now to make sure that they are.