Audiobooks and me.

Audiobooks Saved my Life.

I lay silent for months, unable to move. Then, one day, words come out of the darkness and exploded in my ears.

Not everyone likes talking books. “You’re not getting the whole thing”, my friend Dave once claimed, “just an actor’s interpretation of it. I want to read it for myself.”

Well, each to his own, although oral storytelling is presumably as old as human language itself.

I studied English at University but it was only when I became too sick to read I finally discovered the real power of words. They can save your life.

A recording in a New York studio by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas in February 1952 kickstarted the modern audiobook industry. He recited his poetry for a new company called Caedmon Records, founded by two 22-year-old women, Marianne Roney and Barbara Cohen. Cohen later said, “We had no idea of the power and beauty of this voice. We just expected a poet with a poet’s voice, but this was a full orchestral voice.” ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales and Five other poems’ went on to sell 400,000 copies. Though not the first commercial voice recording, Caedmon was the first label to specialise in talking books, planting the seed of today’s $2-billion spoken-word industry. They often featured authors reading their own work.

Dylan Thomas

Spoken words helped reconnect me to a world that felt like it was gone forever.

At roughly twenty five minutes per side, vinyl audiobooks had to be skilfully, but ruthlessly, abridged. In 1978 a salesman called Henry Trentman, who listened to sales tapes while driving long distances, was struck with the idea of making unabridged audio cassette recordings with professional actors. The term “audiobook” arrived when libraries began renting out books on cassette tape. In the mid 1990s Audible released a mass-market digital audiobook player. In 2005 Librivox began recording public domain audiobooks using volunteer narrators.

I have suffered from myalgic encephalomyelitis since 1994 and have had to spend long stretches of time lying down. I have been lucky. Some people are too ill even to listen.

Smartphones, tablets and entertainment systems in cars continue to popularise the spoken word.

I’m able to read the written word  now, but I still listen.

I’m grateful for the convenience of modern audiobook technology..

People have their favourite readers. It’s fair to say opinions differ, a lot. I like to hear authors read their work. My personal picks for professional narrators  are Jonathan Cecil reading P.G. Wodehouse, Patrick Tull reading the Patrick O’Brien Aubrey/Maturin novels, William Hootkins reading Moby Dick and Robbie Coltrane reading Kidnapped.

One of the annoying things about audiobooks is that a recording by a particular reader can go out of print quickly. Also different territories use different readers, so you have to shop around a bit.

A few years ago audiobooks helped me again, during an initially bad prognosis for cancer. I will be forever grateful for being distracted by Bob Brier’s lectures on Ancient Egypt for the “Great Courses.”

Listening kept me connected to storytelling and literature. I think the novels I’ve written so far are fruits of that – and my unexpected survival.

Here are some links.


Free public domain audiobooks, “read by volunteers around the world.” It now boasts a catalogue that includes thousands of works.


A selection of Caedmon recordings. Free to listen. Includes Kurt Vonnegut reading from “Slaughterhouse Five,” Anthony Burgess reading from “A Clockwork Orange” and Coretta Scott King reading from “My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr.”

The “Audio Books and Poetry” section allows you to listen for free to LibriVox along with digital and archive recordings put up by site users.


Spotify has an audiobook collection that includes classic recordings by Basil Rathbone, Anthony Quayle and James Mason. It’s free to listen but you need a “Premium” monthly membership of e.g. £9.99 in the UK if you want to listen to the files in the right order!


Lit2Go hosts free audiobooks, plays and poems designed to be classroom friendly

Loyal Books

Loyal Books shares free audiobooks from books in the public domain.You can submit reviews of books and read those of others


Audible is a megalithic audiobook company owned by Amazon that needs no introduction/advertising from me! It’s £7.99 a month in the UK, which includes a “credit” to buy a book. (or local equivalent)

In the UK:

Listening Books

Disabled folk can join Listening Books for as little as £20 a year. The company describe themselves as “a postal and internet based audiobook service to over 50,000 members who find it difficult to read the printed word in the usual way.”

Looking Something Up in an Actual Book.

An interest in Buddhism, a fluctuating chronic illness and a near-fatal bout of cancer has left me with a feeling that belongings aren’t terribly important.

However, probably because I studied English at University,  I absolutely love my bonkers, hard-to-use, compact Oxford English Dictionary. We’ve been through a lot together.

The complete twenty volumes of the O.E.D are squeezed into a single book – “micrographically.” Nine pages are printed on each page and you have to use a magnifying glass to read anything. I bought the one-volume version in 1991, while I was at University, for £50.

A text search doesn’t compare really. I would miss the ceremony of looking something up. Also, an old book doesn’t charge you a year’s subscription for reading it (the online O.E.D.’s annual fee is £215 to those that can afford it.)

The light on the magnifying-glass still works after nearly three decades.

Samuel Johnson’s dictionary was published in 1755. It remained the standard text for 150 years until the OUP began publishing the Oxford English Dictionary in 1884. The first CD version of the O.E.D. was produced in 1987. The third edition of the dictionary will be published in the 2030s.

(P.S. I do a lot of my reading digitally, after all it is 2019.)

Edgar Allan Poe’s Less Successful First Detective.

Edgar Allan Poe

It is often claimed Edgar Allan Poe invented the modern detective story in “The Murder in the Rue Morgue.”

When the character of C. Auguste Dupin first appeared in 1841, the word detective did not yet exist.

Poe claimed this new type of story was a tale of “ratiocination”- in which the main concern of the plot is to think and solve problems in a logical way – ascertaining truth through observation and data.

In the tale a woman and her daughter, living in the Rue Morgue, are killed in the middle of the night.

A newspaper reports, “Above the fireplace they found the dead body of the daughter… on the neck there were dark, deep marks which seemed to have been made by strong fingers… Behind the building they found the body of the old woman. Her neck was almost cut through, and when they tried to lift her up, her head fell off.”

After reading the news story Dupin exclaims, “A mystery it is, yes. But there must be an answer. Let us go to the house and see what we can see!”

The detective clears the falsely-accused bank clerk Adolphe Le Bon of  the double murder by using what the narrator calls “his unusual reasoning power.”

Dupin notes that no gold was stolen – robbing Le Bon of his motive.

He notes the murderer would need superhuman strength to force the daughter’s body up the chimney.

He formulates a theory – in which the murderer could have entered the room and killed both women – involving a climb up a lightning rod and a leap to a set of window shutters.

The detective discovers  an unusual tuft of hair and comes to the sensational conclusion the crime was committed by an orangutang.

“Dupin” originated from the English word dupe – the hero is a man who uncovers a deception.

“Rue Morgue” is the template for a traditional heuristic voyage – in which both the detective and reader acquire knowledge as the story progresses.

Through evidence and reasoning the mystery is eventually solved.

Arthur Conan Doyle said Poe’s Dupin stories “are a model for all time” – and an inspiration for Sherlock Holmes because solving mysteries did not rely on chance or co-incidence.

It’s surprising, therefore, that a year before “Rue Morgue” was published Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd” appeared in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine.

In the story a man in a London coffee shop, convalescent from a serious illness, finds himself  “in one of those happy moods which are so precisely the converse of ennui –moods of the keenest appetency, when the film from the mental vision departs.”

The shop is on one of the “principal thoroughfares in the city” and he spends the afternoon reading the paper and watching the other people.

“Merely to breathe,” he says, “was enjoyment.”

He stays until the “the lamps were well lighted,” and “two dense and continuous tides of population were rushing past the door.”

The narrator becomes absorbed in identifying the details of the mid-Victorian crowd outside the window – merchants, tradesmen and pick-pockets. He dissects and recognises everything in a self-satisfied way. All are identified and dealt with.

Then he sees a decrepit old man whose expression transfixes him. A face of “vast mental power, of caution, of penuriousness, of avarice, of coolness, of malice, of blood-thirstiness, of triumph, of merriment, of excessive terror, of intense -of supreme despair.”

The narrator rushes out into the night and follows the man through the city.

“He entered shop after shop, priced nothing, spoke no word, and looked at all objects with a wild and vacant stare.”

As morning approaches he watches the man enter a gin-house and walk amongst the drinkers.

The narrator follows the old man all of the next day and “as the shades of the second evening came on, I grew wearied unto death, and, stopping fully in front of the wanderer, gazed at him steadfastly in the face. He noticed me not, but resumed his solemn walk.”

He concludes that “This old man… is the type and the genius of deep crime. He refuses to be alone. He is the man of the crowd.”

But there is no crime. As with the old man’s meandering journey there is no discernible plan or obvious intent.  We are left, like the storyteller, with a series of disturbing events.

It is an an anti-detective story. A post-modern detective story that pre-dates the actual first detective story.

A criminal without a crime. A blank human being.

In the beginning the narrator is able to minutely dissect every member of society. By the end he knows nothing.


An audio version of this blog is available here:

(Thanks to Charles Turner for his help in this)

Note – The illustration used is fake – Poe’s head is superimposed on the body of an unknown doctor or medical student from a c. 1890s cabinet card. Details –