Shakespeare gave voice to his poetry as a performer in his own plays. Charles Dickens showed such theatrical commitment that he briefly fainted after reading from Oliver Twist. Unfortunately, these stirring author readings (and doubtless many more like them) have been lost to time. Luckily, though, since the late nineteenth century we have had the means to record our most cherished authors read their own work.
These readings need not appeal in any grander sense than as a historical artifact. In some cases, a recorded reading is the only surviving document of an author’s voice. Though the best recordings go beyond, shedding light on the author’s interpretation of their work—what parts excite them, where they intended humor, how their characters sound to them, how the rhythm of their verse flows. Sometimes the recordings are just plain fun, bringing the reader closer to the personality of a writer they already love. Here, we’ve compiled some of the best author recordings since the dawn of the practice.
This short reading was spearheaded by Edison’s engineers, who were pioneering wax-cylinder recording at the time (they would have Tennyson read his “Charge of the Light Brigade” in a similarly muffled session). It is very difficult to make out a sense of Whitman’s voice, it sounds a little New York-ish, but at this muffled quality, it's hard to tell for sure. As a curiosity, it is a great early recording to have.
This recording is in great condition for its date (1929), in part because it belongs to a series of author readings to be played on the gramophone, a relatively novel idea at the time. Here, Milne reads in his refined accent stories of Winnie the Pooh and the Hundred-Acre Wood. It is hard not to listen and think of this lively lucid recording as anything other than a treasure.
Like Whitman above, this recording of James Joyce leaves a lot of clarity to be desired. Then again, this section of Finnegans Wake called Anna Livia Plurabelle is far from a typical passage, for hearing it clearly does not mean you will comprehend it. Released before the rest of the novel as a self-justifying section of Joyce’s audacious final project and experiment, the author said “On Anna Livia I am prepared to stake everything.” As a fan of Joyce, it is lovely to hear his soprano voice, perhaps with some exaggerated Irish inflection.
This recording is an auditory delight, manifested in jazz rhythms and Hughes’s quiet delivery. It melds well the two aural traditions of Harlem, of music and speech, brought together with rhythm and knowledge and liveliness.
I don’t know how I expected J.R.R. Tolkien to sound, but upon first hearing I was struck by the cinematic elegance of his voice, a tempered, lucid British accent fit for radio or film. Here, he reads a most famous passage from The Hobbit, where Bilbo and Gollum duel with riddles in a dark cave. The supreme reward in this recording is to hear the master of fantasy commit fully to Gollum, endowing him with that harsh feline accent that would become familiar to the culture at large with the coming of the Hollywood adaptations fifty years later.
Edna St. Vincent Millay
The poet reads her poem, “Love Is Not All,” a dramatic and incantatory work that is elevated by Millay’s cinematic grandeur. She reads like a movie star from a bygone, but is more reminiscent of Vincent Price reading Poe than of a damsel in distress. A classic example of an author's reading adding force to words already alive on the page.
O’Connor’s Southern accent is a joy to listen to as she reads her most famous short story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” The Georgian writer reads a pleasant rendition of her bleak, peculiar tale, even making her Vanderbilt audience laugh several times, charming them as they approach the horrifying conclusion.