Audiobooks before Audiobooks

By Matthew RuberyAugust 19, 2013

Audiobooks before Audiobooks

When I grew up, one could always hear T.S. Eliot, Yeats, S.J. Perelman and a host of others read on the Caedmon label, and it was its own little treat that in no way encroached on the pleasure of reading these people.  

— Woody Allen

LONG BEFORE anyone had ever heard of audiobooks, Caedmon Records made a name for itself recording authors reading aloud from their work. Many Americans first heard the voices of their favorite writers through the Caedmon Literary Series, launched in the 1950s.

In 1952, Barbara Holdridge and Marianne Roney went to hear Dylan Thomas read his poetry at New York’s 92nd Street Y. The 22-year-old college graduates left a note asking the Welsh poet to consider a business proposition: $500 to record his poetry. Thomas recited “Do not go gentle into that good night,” “In the white giant’s thigh,” “Fern Hill,” and other poems before running out of verse to fill the record. Instead, he offered to read the story “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” Thomas was an inspired choice with which to launch a label devoted to the spoken word. The album went on to sell nearly half a million copies over the next decade. Many of us still find it difficult to read Thomas’s poems without hearing in our heads the Caedmon voice.

Dylan Thomas Christmas

Caedmon Records went on to establish a reputation as the premier publisher of spoken word recordings. Its roster features many of the 20th-century’s most revered names in poetry including W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, Gertrude Stein, and Wallace Stevens. Prose writers such as William Faulkner and Eudora Welty likewise read excerpts from their fiction. Despite a preference for authors reading their own work, Caedmon also employed a talented group of actors such as Richard Burton, John Gielgud, and Vanessa Redgrave to read aloud other people’s work.

Matianne Moore Poems

Gertrude Stein

Caedmon was not the first to use the record player as a literary jukebox. Thomas Edison proposed recording Dickens on wax cylinders shortly after the phonograph’s invention. Robert Browning and Alfred Tennyson recorded poems as early as 1890, and Columbia Records had been making Shakespeare recordings since the turn of the century. Valuable series of recorded poetry had been started decades earlier by Harvard, Yale, and the Library of Congress. Commercial record companies occasionally made prestige recordings of eminent poets or even of film stars reciting verse. Yet Caedmon was the first to specialize exclusively in spoken word recordings at a time when demand was growing for public recitations in America. Through a combination of marketing savvy, innovative technology, and good taste, Caedmon succeeded in bringing highbrow literature to the masses.


Eudora Welty

The slogan “A Third Dimension for the Printed Page” announced Caedmon’s restoration of sound to a literary tradition that had lost its oral roots. The Anglo-Saxon poet from whom the company derived its name first sang his verse after a divinely inspired dream. Now modern audiences could hear the poet’s voice too. Listeners felt as if the poet was speaking directly to them. Caedmon’s founders attributed the company’s success to this sense of intimacy. Each phrase is “vibrantly alive,” notes one album. Communing with writers was especially appealing during an era in which people had limited access to the arts. In 1950s America, spoken word albums appealed both to college-educated men who had studied literature under the GI Bill and to busy housewives who had to get the ironing done.

Looking back over the catalog today, I am struck by how eclectic and wide-ranging it is. There are predictable titles like Milton’s Paradise Lost. But there are surprising ones, too, such as Malleus Maleficarum and a collection of Eskimo legends. Caedmon harvested material from all over the world. Colette, Thomas Mann, Pablo Neruda, and others read their work in foreign languages. J.R.R. Tolkien’s recording even boasts of a poem recited in Elvish. The catalog features poetry, fiction, drama, sermons, interviews, and fairy tales. Educational titles such as Black Pioneers in American History reflect the growing prominence of Caedmon’s records in schools as well as the changing historical context of the civil rights movement, feminism, and other campaigns for social equality in the 1960s and 1970s.

Today Caedmon is widely credited with laying the groundwork for the audiobook industry. In 2001, the Audio Publishers Association gave Holdridge and Mantell an Audie Award for Lifetime Achievement. Caedmon Audio (as the company became known after switching to compact discs) continues to publish spoken word recordings under the HarperCollins imprint. The company periodically releases remastered titles from the backlist and produces new audiobooks. Its recordings of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (read by Matt Dillon) and 50 Cent’s The 50th Law (read by the rapper himself) carry on the original label’s tradition of using authors and performers to enhance the reading experience.

Recently I had the chance to ask Barbara Holdridge about Caedmon Records. Here is what she had to say:

MATTHEW RUBERY: There was no term for “audiobook” when you started Caedmon Records. Did you refer to them as “spoken word recordings,” “talking books,” or something else?

BARBARA HOLDRIDGE: We referred to them as “spoken-word records” or “recordings of the spoken word,” if we were being formal.

MR: The audiobook industry has grown enormously since Caedmon’s time. How would you describe the relationship between Caedmon and the audiobooks that came after it?

BH: We envisioned our audience as A) people sitting at home, enthralled by actually listening to authors (and later, literature and plays) they already loved or were encountering for the first time, and B) students in and out of school, and their teachers. This was long before CDs and newfangled devices which enabled people to listen on the go and fed the hunger for popular novels, ephemera, and how-to books. But Caedmon built the audience of listeners — that is, people who did not take listening to the spoken word for granted, but as a new way to experience and be excited by great prose, poetry, and drama — any time, any place.

MR: Where did the motto “Caedmon: a third dimension for the printed page” come from?

BH: It just popped into my head one day, early in our history. The book represented two dimensions, but the voice captured the third.

MR: The Caedmon catalog is impressively “high brow” in many instances — for example, Jean Cocteau reading his poems in French. How did you manage to balance your artistic interests with the need to run a profitable business that would sell records?

BH: Just as we were starting, the men who had just ended their service in the Second World War were going back to school to catch up on or begin their college education, looking forward to entering careers, and financed by the new G.I. Bill of Rights. They provided a market, as we quickly became aware, for the classics. Marianne [Roney] and I had studied Greek, Latin, and world literature in college [Hunter College in New York], and were steeped in the classics, ancient and modern. We therefore, at the age of 22, not only understood this market, but were a part of it. Some of the recordings may not have sold in the thousands, but they sold enough for us to see a profit and to feel that we were contributing something important. Our work was publicized in newspapers and magazines because we were young women. We won an audience, and we recorded great literature because that was what we loved.

We recorded the great actress Katina Paxinou reading ancient Greek dramas with passion and innate understanding. We recorded classic Spanish plays like La Vida es Sueño when a fine Spanish troupe came to perform in New York. We recorded Colette in French, in Paris, shortly before she died. We recorded Japanese Noh plays in Japan. We recorded our former Greek teacher in deeply felt, heartbreaking passages of the Iliad. We recorded the great singer Lotte Lehman reading Rilke in German, and of course Thomas Mann, also in German. We recorded, and we let the literary world find the recordings. No, we did not make a fortune in those days, and some days we went hungry, but the business began to prosper when President Lyndon Johnson launched an education revolution with Title One [of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act passed in 1965]. That was when, instead of selling 10 or 20 copies of a record album, we began to sell hundreds at a time to school systems around the country. It was when large publishers caught on and started to found educational subsidiaries, and when there were numerous spoken-word startups.

We were now able to continue our exploration of the spoken word with recordings of the entire works of Shakespeare, sending our director to England to make the recordings, with the finest and most celebrated actors. We were able to record whole Broadway productions, such as Marat/Sade, with the incredible director Peter Brook. We started our own Theatre Recording Society and Shakespeare Recording Society as mail-order companies and took out full-page ads in The New York Times Book Review. And we continued to make recordings of poets whose recordings did a little better than break even but whom we admired.

MR: The Caedmon catalog is incredibly eclectic. Is there anything you refused to publish?

BH: We declined to record one famous actor whose agent approached us, because while he had a great screen presence, his voice was flat and unsuitable. And we never, even if they were well-known, recorded poets we thought second-rate.

MR: The album artwork is terrific. What relation did you see between the album art and the records themselves?

BR: Thank you for your compliment on the album art. I was an ex-art major in college before going back to my first love, literature, and both Marianne and I appreciated art of any age. I took special pleasure in creating covers. Seeing a Miro in an art gallery window one day, we went in and prevailed on the owner to allow us to reproduce it as a record cover. We both loved the work of Morris Graves, and I believe used one of his wonderful birds on one cover. And we were privileged to know Fritz Eichenberg and Antonio Frasconi, who both contributed numerous original designs for our covers. Each work of theirs was created by them for that particular cover. They would come to our office and show them to us for approval, and we were always excited to produce the album covers displaying those original works.

MR: Caedmon liner notes frequently use the pronoun “we.” Did you (and presumably Marianne Roney) think of Caedmon as a persona in some way? 

BH: The “we” was just a corporate “we,” although I think we always felt that the company, at least until we sold it, was somehow an extension of ourselves.  

MR: The liner notes feature different kinds of writing. Some include notes written by the author, general biographical accounts of the author, or accounts of how the recording was made. How did you decide what information to include on albums?

BH: At some point, we began signing our own liner notes, but that was after Caedmon had been acquired by Raytheon. Marianne and I didn’t consult with each other concerning the content of the liner notes, nor did we submit them to each other for approval or editing. In later years, we often assigned this work to scholars in that field, or to whoever had created the recording; but I think that was after 1970.

MR: How would you describe the relationship between the album and the original book?

BH: Because we were working with a limited time length for LPs [long-playing records], one of our jobs was to edit and time longer works, such as novels, to make sure they fit. That was an interesting and somewhat creative exercise! One of the problems with both disks and books is that you can see that the novel, say, is nearing its end, which can be disconcerting if you are engrossed in the story and the characters. With the newer technology, this is no longer true, and I think that is a benefit!

MR: Do you think there’s a difference between hearing a book read aloud and reading it silently to oneself?

BH: If it’s well done, the performance brings out subtleties of the book that might be missed when the eye scans the page. And of course, sound effects and music make a big difference. They are the producer’s interpretation rather than one’s own. For that matter, the delivery by the performers can be seen as an intrusion, which alters the voice imagined by the reader. The reader has to be open to interpretation, or why listen?

MR: Does it make a difference whether the author or an actor reads a book?

BH: There is certainly a difference, and that is the difference that Caedmon emphasized. The author is actually recapturing the emotions experienced when first the book or poem was written. It doesn't matter whether he or she reads as an actor would. The actor is interpreting the author’s intent. The author is interpreting his or her own intent — not someone else’s work, but his or her own, in the authentic intonation, emotion, and accent. When the author was still alive, we always campaigned for that author’s own reading. Usually we got our man — or woman.

MR: Audiobooks are often criticized for being abridged. How did you feel about abridging narratives for Caedmon?

BH: As I explained earlier, we had no choice while we were limited by technology. However, there was value in some abridgments, when prose could be tightened and extraneous material omitted. However, prior to our having to do “educational” recordings as part of Raytheon's educational arm (D.C. Heath), none of the novels we cared to record was in need of cutting, other than under pressure of time. Why else would one cut a single paragraph of Moby Dick or Dickens?  However, War and Peace might have been a candidate, if we had chosen to record it! 

MR: They’ve also been criticized for being too dramatic. How did you feel about dramatizing literary narratives instead of reading them in a neutral voice?

BH: I wouldn’t dream of recording fiction in a “neutral” voice. What italics, long dashes, ellipses, and exclamation points do on the printed page, the voice must do on the recorded version.

MR: Your records have adapted printed narratives for sound recording (for example, omitting the “he saids” from a recording of the Bible’s Book of Job). How important did you feel it was to adhere to the original text?

BH: Except where repetitiveness was relentless, we stuck to the original text. Why would one strike even one repetition of that haunting refrain from Job, “And I only am alone escaped to tell thee”?

MR: Finally, did you ever encounter hostility from people who felt that books should be read, not listened to?

BH: Never.


Matthew Rubery is the editor of Audiobooks, Literature, and Sound Studies.

LARB Contributor

Matthew Rubery is the editor of Audiobooks, Literature, and Sound Studies (Routledge, 2011). He is currently completing a manuscript titled “The Untold Story of the Talking Book.”


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