Literature is like a blind date: We all pretend that looks don’t matter, that what we really care about is inner beauty — but before we commit ourselves, we’d like to get a peek at the guy or gal.
For that reason, most of us perform a simple ritual when first we pick up a book. We turn to the back inside cover where, most often, the author photo can be found. (And if you’re not impressed, it’s never too late to back away, claiming that you’re terribly sorry but you have to wash your hair instead.)
Yet in historic recordings recently released by the British Library and distributed by The University of Chicago Press, several of which have never before been published, a startling truth is revealed: How an author sounds can be even more illuminating than what an author looks like. Hearing the voice, hearing the inflection and pacing and tone, hearing the attitude and the word choice in non-scripted conversation, can tell you as much about the author as does a snapshot.
“The Spoken Word,” a splendid and surprising two-volume CD set, was compiled by the BBC from its archives of programs featuring British and American literary figures. A host of famous names are here: J.R.R. Tolkien, Virginia Woolf, Graham Greene, Rudyard Kipling and Somerset Maugham are among the 30 British scribes and, from the United States, the likes of Gertrude Stein, James Baldwin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Eudora Welty, Eugene O’Neill and Ralph Ellison join 21 others.
Some of the recordings are interviews; others are speeches given by the authors. O’Neill reads a scene from “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” complete with stage directions — and the effect is electric. The same words that seem, on the page, rather melodramatic and hysterical, become grimly authentic when delivered in O’Neill’s haunted baritone.
Other authors’ voices are equally mesmerizing. “I no longer mind what people think of me,” says a weary Maugham, whose timbre and accent recall that of Alfred Hitchcock. “I have fulfilled myself and I am willing to call it a day.” Woolf’s voice is not at all the high-pitched flute one might expect: “Words do not live in dictionaries. They live in the mind.”
Another aural surprise comes from Baldwin, who sounds a lot like William F. Buckley: “I think of myself as a blues singer,” he says. “What I’m trying to do is sing the blues in prose.”
Gore Vidal, who sounds bored by every question he’s asked, says he writes because “I have these voices in my head.” After spending a few hours reveling in this diverse collection, there will be voices in the listener’s head as well: the voices of the women and men who shaped the 20th Century with the written versions of their words.