So last week’s Lutz Koepnick reading was on my mind as I listened to the audial version of Castle of Otranto. Available for free on http://archive.org/details/castle_of_otranto_0810_librivox, this audial book (you’ll see why I’m calling it that in a moment) is read by what appears to be an anonymous reader and (or perhaps because) it contains some added effects for flavor. Just two of the colorful bits: there is one non-verbal sound effect added to the text (rain & thunder), and the reader performs quite the Italian accent for Fr. Jerome. Skill-related complaints and the ‘why only Jerome’ question (the Sicily reference?) aside, this reader/producer is constructing a highly performative text. Though some may disapprove of a performance that considerably alters the original text (in this case, with the addition of elements such as the thunder or the accent), such an attempt shows the reader/producer to be aware that, “[listeners] appear drawn more to the performer than to the author, to the dramatic aspects of interpretation” (Koepnick 235). Sure enough, users have posted only complimentary reviews that praise specifically these added elements, or what ‘Rare Clones’ calls, “‘Dark and Stormy Night’ sound effects” (the other two reviewers compliment his ‘voices’).
Even without sound effects or particularly skilled readers, audible books provide interpretive opportunities — Otranto, for instance, undergoes a major shift between the third and fourth chapter: a rapidly unfolding – some say random – narrative gives way to a series of intimate, highly sentimental sequences in which Isabella, Mathilda, and Bianca speak of their amours and set each other’s sentimental strings vibrating. This shift became noticeable to me precisely because of the audible format: I found myself having to return to earlier points in the chapter in order to determine exactly who was saying what, a problem that did not occur once while listening to the less dialogue-heavy first three chapters. This audial format works like one of those little fixes – like turning off a film’s sound – it that opens new pathways to critical noticings.
So, I’m calling them ‘audial books’ because McGann is interested in access to ‘the audial’ as one of the payoffs of hypertextuality. Why McGann? Because this audial book is not only a performance, but also a deformance. Whereas the recorded book is not directly used by McGann as an example of deformance, the audial is brought up in Reading Machines in the context of orality and the ballads of Robert Burns. McGann writes,
Yet the ballad interested Burns exactly because it was an additional text. Under different circumstances [other than, he means, Radiant Textualities’ print format] I could give a reasonable reproduction of that ballad. I could play for you an audio version of, say Jean Redpath singing that ballad to a score imitating the ballad as Burns might have heard it sung. Or I could play for you Andy Stewart’s ‘version’ of the ballad, or others as well. 59
To me, all of this ‘for you’ amounts to a pedagogical imperative. Last semester, when leading my students through Scott’s Border ballads, I made sure to play some audio clips of solid readings of Burns – not only relevant in showing where Scott was coming from and why there was a precedent for the popularity of such texts, this also demonstrated that much pleasure, much meaning is to be found in a text’s audial elements. When, later in the semester, they were reading mid and late Victorians writing in (sometimes better, sometimes worse) affected working class accents, they realized that the whole point was to read or imagine the audible elements of the text. So many of our (especially nineteenth and eighteenth century) novels were written by authors aware of performative readerly practices – it may behoove us to consider the scholarly opportunities, the potentials for deformance, afforded by the audial.