The LibriVox Question

LibriVox is a rapidly expanding online platform where volunteers make recordings of literary classics, anything from short poems to major novels. Its laudable aim is the “acoustical liberation of books into the public domain”, making it a sort of vocal version of Project Gutenberg. The problem is that a great many of the volunteers, though well intentioned, fall woefully short of the mark when it comes to the interpretation of their chosen texts. Thus LibriVox is potentially a platform for the most excruciating public self-humiliation. Let me put my own head on the block before I set out some examples. Here’s the scenario…

I’m a middle-aged guy with a reasonably cultivated British accent. I also fancy myself as a literary type and a bit of a performer. I’d like to volunteer for LibriVox. Let me think of a text well-suited to my age, voice, nationality and background. Ah yes – the work to which I could best do justice, without a shadow of a doubt, is Huckleberry Finn. I shall be Mark Twain’s faithful servant, submerging any otiose expression of my own personality in favour of the greater objective, of bringing Huck and his pals to life for a new generation of listeners. Let me do a very quick voice test:

Faced with this flawlessly authentic evocation of antebellum life and language along the Mississippi River, you would surely have to agree that I should get in touch with LibriVox immediately. If I do, I shall be “a first among equals”, a member of the thousands-strong fellowship of volunteers who have added an extra dimension to literary awareness. Here is my first LibriVox example, a poem by Lewis Carroll. Poetry arguably affords us readers an opportunity to “be ourselves” for a spell, abandoning the tighter constraints imposed by novels and short stories, where we continue to strive for the authentic and indispensable sense of time and place. Here the reader courageously sets aside the high-Anglican whimsy and Oxford donnishness one might normally associate with Carroll in favour of a more contemporary reading:

And here is an excerpt from a group project, a recording of Macbeth. As to the accents and casting, finely-grained “diversity” is the deeply-struck hallmark of this production. Who needs the (freely available) old-hat performance starring Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Judi Dench when they could experience this instead?

And here is a highly individual characterization of Rodion Raskolnikov. After this one could easily imagine Russia’s favourite axe-wielding maniac being perfectly at home at a cocktail party with Gore Vidal and Tenn Williams:

Sometimes, it has to be said, a reader’s unsuitability for the chosen text is far outweighed and redeemed by some kind of mysterious inner magic, a kind of mesmerizing personal connexion with the text. Consider this, ignoring if you can the “Arksford friend”:

I am not for a moment suggesting that all English drama has to be performed in an Arksford accent, or that people should be discouraged from reading great literature aloud in class, or at informal gatherings, by virtue of their backgrounds or accents. They shouldn’t. But presenting great literature to the public, as a public service, is a different matter entirely. Whether paid or voluntary, it surely requires some measure of respect for the author, some understanding of what his or her intentions were. Bearing that in mind, I’ll get back to my rehearsal of Huckleberry Finn: