The Best-Ever Recordings From the Prehistory of Audiobooks

Photo: Vulture

Audiobooks have grown phenomenally over the past decade, but they’ve been around since at least 1932 — the year a recording studio was established by the American Foundation for the Blind. Each of the foundation’s vinyl records held about 15 minutes of dialogue. According to the Audio Publishers Association, the first test recordings were of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and a chapter from Helen Keller’s Midstream: My Later Life. With the invention of the cassette tape in 1963 (and the compact disc in 1982), audiobooks became commercially popular — gracing bookshelves, earning coverage in the trade press, and slowly becoming commuting staples. But the aural consumption of the printed word has been around even longer — much longer. Thanks to Thomas Edison’s phonographs, a raft of researchers, the Library of Congress, and YouTube, some of the oldest author recordings ever made can now be streamed straight into your earbuds. Below are 15 highlights of the prehistory of the medium, in reverse chronological order — from Allen Ginsberg’s New Yawk howl to Vladimir Nabokov’s creepy smoothness, and all the way back to someone who may or may not have been Walt Whitman.

The Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Audio Collection (including Breakfast of Champions, Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five, and three stories from Welcome to the Monkey House)
Thanks to Spotify, abridged versions of Vonnegut’s signature works read by the satirical mastermind himself are a click away. A highlight is Vonnegut singing “My Name is Yon Yonson” during the opening of Slaughterhouse-Five. Who knew the dark comic could deliver the tale of Yon Yonson, who lived in Wisconsin, so whimsically — and also so in-tune. In Cat’s Cradle, he croons alongside an acoustic guitar to a song about Chinese dentists and British queens.

Sylvia Plath. Photo: Bettmann Archive

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey
Kesey’s first novel shines in its simple narrative approach, and the same can be said for his narration of the story. The half-white, half–Native American “Chief Broom” Bromden, the eyes and ears of the mental hospital, notes the antics of the lively Randle Patrick McMurphy and the robotic Big Nurse with her staff. In his raspy voice, Kesey reads his tale with a poetic air, like he’s seen a thing or two, and might remember it differently than you would.

Sylvia Plath Reading Her Poetry
In 2013, writer and collector Greg Gatenby sold what he claimed to be the largest known collection of writers’ voices preserved on vinyl — 1,700 LPs, 45s, and ten-inch discs — including recordings of Plath reading some of her lesser-known poetry in her melancholy, controlled tone. Luckily, most of these recordings, including Plath’s, have been digitized. In 1977, Sylvia Plath Reading Her Poetry was released on the spoken-word label Caedmon. The readings are said to have been recorded some 15 years earlier — a few even before the publication of her first book, 1960’s The Colossus and Other Poems.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s, by Truman Capote
The 1958 novella, better known for its 1961 film adaptation of the same name, prompted Norman Mailer to call Capote “the most perfect writer of my generation” and to claim he “would not have changed two words” in the tale. In a famously high, penetrating voice that could curl a dog’s tail, Capote introduced the beloved Holly Golightly with the line, “If there’s one thing I loathe, it’s men who bite!” in this 1963 recording taken at the 92nd Street Y Poetry Center.

Truman Capote. Photo: Evening Standard/Getty Images

On the Road, by Jack Kerouac
Appearing on the Steve Allen Show in 1959, Kerouac read from his 1957 beat classic, accompanied by jazzy piano. He appeared to be only mildly amused by the tune, or maybe it was just Allen’s comment on Kerouac’s nerves. The father of the Beat Generation reads rhythmically from a book that feels like it was written at the speed of sound on a single scroll and never revised. (Or so went the myth if not the reality.)

Howl,” by Allen Ginsberg
The poet’s fiery protest against conformity was written in 1955 and published two years later, long before the mainstream got hip. The poem’s opening lines, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked / Dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,” delivered by Ginsberg’s orotund New Yawk intonation, defined the Beat Generation and the counterculture it provoked. Ginsberg’s lament was delivered publicly for the first time in San Francisco in 1955, but first recorded at Reed College the following year.

Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
For a novel to maintain its ability to shock and offend for more than 60 years is, for better or worse, remarkable. Nabokov’s tale of Humbert Humbert and Dolores Haze is still much-debated and reconsidered (lately in Sarah Weinman’s book about its real-life inspiration). In this clip, Nabokov — declamatory and dramatic, sounding perhaps appropriately like Vincent Price playing an Oxford professor — reads the climactic penultimate chapter of the novel, in which Humbert confronts his doppelgänger and fellow Lolita obsessive, Clare Quilty.

Virginia Woolf. Photo: ullstein bild via Getty Images

The J.R.R. Tolkien Audio Collection
In the summer of 1952, J.R.R. Tolkien, then 60, got his hands on a tape recorder for the first time and taped himself reading from The Hobbit, giving Gollum a low, snarling accent to rival Andy Serkis. Tolkien continued to document himself reciting his work for years to come, including the bouncy number “Sam’s Rhyme of the Troll.” Two years ago, Maria Popova, of the website Brain Pickings, shared clips of Tolkien reading from The Fellowship of the Ring on the site.

“Craftsmanship,” by Virginia Woolf
On April 29, 1937, this recording of Virginia Woolf was first broadcast by the BBC’s Words Fail Me series. Woolf’s discussion on the program, said to be the only surviving recording of her voice, was turned into an essay called “Craftmanship” and then published in an eclectic Woolf collection called The Death of the Moth. “Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations — naturally,” she said in a deep, cultured voice. “They have been out and about, on people’s lips … And that is one of the chief difficulties in writing them today …”

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
The CBS Radio Workshop aired for only one season, from 1956 to 1957. Though it was too little, too late for the era, the Workshop produced some overlooked gems. One was its premiere broadcast: a two-part adaptation of Huxley’s classic 1932 novel, Brave New World, narrated by Huxley himself. Complete with theatrical voice artists, piercing sound effects of crying babies receiving electric shocks, and background music that was a little more extraterrestrial than dystopian, it’s a campy reading, but a must-listen for bibliophiles and audio nerds alike.

Leo Tolstoy. Photo: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner
Faulkner is said to have written As I Lay Dying in six weeks after working shifts at a power plant in 1929 and 1930. HarperCollins released a recording of the Nobel laureate reading a selection of the 1930 Southern Gothic novel in his heavy Mississippi drawl. Although the audio is sometimes a bit difficult to decipher, it’s still better than James Franco’s 2013 film adaptation.

I Cannot Be Silent, by Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy reportedly received a phonograph in 1908 from Thomas Edison, who asked the Russian writer to record himself reciting several interpretations of Gospel texts. Most of the Edison/Tolstoy cylinders have unfortunately not survived, but Read Russia was given a series of (barely) preserved audio clips by archivists from Gosteleradiofond that captured the novelist’s thoughts on moral issues, law, and art, as well as a small excerpt from his 1908 book, I Cannot Be Silent.

America,” by Walt Whitman (Maybe)
In 1992, a couple of Walt Whitman scholars dug up what they believed to have been a recording of Walt Whitman reading four lines from his 1888 poem “America.” If the scholars were correct, this would be the only known recording of Whitman’s voice. Experts were hesitant to authenticate it. It appeared to have been taken from a 1950s NBC radio broadcast according to the New York Times, and the wax cylinder that broadcaster Leon Pearson referred to has been lost. However, archival letters confirm that Thomas Edison wanted to record Whitman’s voice via phonograph.

The Best-Ever Recordings From the Prehistory of Audiobooks