Miscellany: More Librivox, More Emerson, More Diarrhea

Ok, to get to Diarrhea, you have to read to the end of this post.



I got some very good comments from “Hugh” who is a poobah of some sort over at Librivox. You should go read his comments yourself at my post, “Listening as Reading,” but a couple of excerpts here since I want to think about what he has to say. (And, hey, it’s a cheap way to come up with a post when it’s late at night and I’m having trouble collecting my thoughts.

Says Hugh:

“in pre-radio/tv/recordings days, and when books were relatively expensive, many books were actually written to be read aloud – it was a form of family entertainment: the family & friends gathered around papa (or mama) who read at the fireplace. dickens is a particular example. of course an mp3 audio version read by a stranger isn’t the same thing, but it is another experience of literature, one that has it’s own particular richness, and weakness.”

Yes, a good thing to point out, continuous with my general observation that for the longest part of human history reading was primarily about reading aloud, not reading silently. I’m not quite sure I would go completely down the road that books in the nineteenth century were written to be read out loud. This misconstrues the case. But it is the case that they were commonly read out loud, and there was a great deal of fluidity between the oral presentation and the written. Dickens is a good representative of this fluidity. I’m not quite sure I would say Dicken’s wrote his books in order to read them out loud. He wrote them in order to get them published serially in magazines. But it is absolutely true that he often rewrote and rewrote passages over and over in order to achieve certain kinds of emotional effects in his listening audience. Thus there’s a deep connection between the orality of the word and the writtenness of the word. A fluid interchange of sorts. I still tell students they ought to read their work outloud to themselves in order to hear how things sound. This can be a good guide to the kind of rhetorical affects you are achieving.

Says Hugh again:

“-we are primarily a platform to help people record audiobooks (with an objective of making a complete audio library of public domain books); that the public can download and listen to our files is in a way just a fortunate by-product of what we do.

-and while our collection’s “quality” is, by design, all over the map, the volume of good and extraordinary recordings is daunting…it’s a matter of finding the good stuff. Here are some recommendations:


This last is very helpful, though I wish the list was more organized. I clicked through some of the recommended readings and–on the basis of very short sampling–most of them are superior to some of the detritus I’ve waded through the past few times I’ve strolled through Librivox. I wish that Librivox would provide some kind of ratings system itself–at least one that recognized the popularity of different readings–though I suspect that this would counter the dream of pure democratic participationism that drives this kind of thing on the web.

As for Librivox being primarily about the readers and not the listeners, something Hugh tells me in a second comment, I’m not so sure. (I think Hugh didn’t think it was fair of me to criticize many of the readers for being…well…Dull. Or annoying. Or both). To some degree I think he’s suggesting that Librivox is really more like a blog service where readers can express themselves via recording. Well, OK. But the thrill of doing so is that people will listen in, yes? I mean, if it wasn’t for the fact that people might actually look at this blog, why not just keep it on my computer instead of publishing it for all the world to sneer at.

It’s also the case that in reading a published work, the reader puts himself/herself in the position of performer/artist who is interpreting the work of another artist. There are a lot of opera singers out there who really ought to spare the rest of us and restrict their renditions of Nessun Dorma to the safety of their shower stalls. On the other hand, I don’t begrudge them the right to perform for the world on YouTube. But if they do, I generally think we’ve got a right and responsibility to Puccini and to Pavorotti to say, “You know, that really stinks pretty badly.” There’s no inherent nobility in performing, contrary to what most Americans seem to think.

But enough. Mostly I’m on Hugh’s side here. I’m glad someone’s doing something like Librivox, even if I don’t want to listen to most of the people doing it.



I blogged a bit about Emerson today on the blog dedicated to my course on literary theory. Just a bit of that from a post I called “Emerson and the Gods of Reading”:

Along these lines, I think there’s a way in which Emerson’s notions of creative reading are embodied in the way we read now. For Emerson, reading was a threatening activity precisely because we were always tending toward submission and passivity, always on the brink of substituting someone else’s creativity or knowledge for our own. This would mean we had failed to be “The Poet” we were meant to be and in fact are if we would only realize it. Instead, reading only exists to a purpose if it inspires us to more writing of our own. Reading must always give forth in to new and different expression, or it is worthless. Reading that absorbs and doesn’t give forth in new creativity, reading that doesn’t come to an end in writing is destructive to rather than an enhancement of our humanity.

What is this if not the reading ethic of blogging. Emerson, the familiar spirit of Facebook culture. Reading for us now is only meaningful if it gives forth in self expression. Indeed, texts become primarily a means of further self-expression. I read other texts or find other materials on the internet in order to “blog” them. The verb in this sense means partly to write about them, but blogging something also connotes making it one’s own, making it an opportunity for self-expression, an opportunity to speak.

I don’t think I want to deride this outright. NPR had someone–maybe the founder of Facebook-?!-on today with a little piece on the glories of connectivity available through self-exposure. It seemed a little facile–by exposing my darkest secrets on the net I’ll be able to develop authentic relationships with people I’ve never met. Umm, maybe. If this were true, why not go expose yourself to your next door neighbor. Still, it is the case that kinds of connections are built through this incessant speaking. Ultimately, for Emerson, our seeking expression at the expense of reading was not a form of self-aggrandizement, though it’s often taken for that. It was ultimately a way of connecting to a broader world. In Emerson’s view, if all people would become The Poet they were meant to be, all the world would be saved and we would all be one. It’s ultimately a platonic evangelical Christian vision without Christ in some sense. If we’ll all individually get right with Jesus, we’ll all be one. The internet says something vaguely similar. If we would all just keep looking for ways of expressing ourselves through the texts of others, we will all be connected through what is, after all, the World Wide Web.

I have no idea if this makes any sense, but it seemed profound at the time. Parents are paying for this stuff. It better be.



Ok, this doesn’t refer to the stinky liquid spew that this post is fast becoming. Or not only that.

I often tell my English students that there is a magazine about everything, so they can take their writing skills and find a job anywhere in the world. The last part is a department chair’s fantasy, but there really is a journal about everything in the world.

Witness “Dialogue On Diarrhea.” Yes, there is a journal covering everything you wanted to know about loose stools. Ok, I should say there used to be a journal. In the words of the web site:

Dialogue on Diarrhoea was an international newsletter on the control of diarrhoeal diseases published by Healthlink Worldwide (formerly AHRTAG), a UK-based non-governmental organisation.

The first issue was published in May 1980.The last of a total of 60 issues, during its 15 years, was published in May 1995.

Published four times a year, Dialogue on Diarrhoea offered clear, practical advice on preventing and treating diarrhoeal diseases. It also acted as a forum for readers to exchange ideas and share experiences.

Umm, just what kind of experiences are we sharing here exactly?

Anyway, the print newsletter is no more. And now instead we have “Dialogue On Diarrhea Online”. So the next time you have this problem, you’ll know where to head. Besides the bathroom. I mean.

And, as we think of it, doesn’t this point to the last important remaining geography in which print remains triumphant. Bathroom reading. It’s a bit tragic that the diarrheatics among us will now have to carry their Kindles to the bathroom in order to keep up on the latest and share their experiences. On the other hand, with laptop in hand they will now be able to share their experiences in a much more intimate and immediate way.

Ok, I’ll stop. I’m sure I’ve now insulted all the chronic diarrhea sufferers who regularly read this blog. And none of my students will ever get an internship with this website. That’s for sure.

Final note: I thought for sure I would be the only person on WordPress who used the word “diarrhea” in a tag. No. There are hundreds of us.

Isn’t the web a wonderful place?

9 thoughts on “Miscellany: More Librivox, More Emerson, More Diarrhea

  1. hugh

    hi peter,

    i’ll defer to your analysis of dickens, but the wider point is that the roots – some ancient, some more recent – of text literature is oral. so “reading” is a particular type of experience of literature, but not the only one, not the oldest one. as to the value of these different experiences of literature, I think that’s up to those who experience it to decide and describe. Certainly reading text and listening are not the same thing, but how one values one or the other is surely a matter for the individual to assess. If audio books *result* in a decrease in (paper)text reading, then I will be with you in decrying the loss of a certain type of skill and experience, one that cannot be replaced by listening (or by reading online for that matter). But I don’t think it’s the case that audio books result in less reading; I suspect the opposite, but I have no proof of that.

    As for myself, some of my own most formative experiences of literature involved my mother reading to me: RLS’s Kidnapped; The Trumpeter Swan; Stuart Little; The Hobbit; and countless others. It never occurred to me to criticize my mother for stumbles, substandard reading or non-NPR intonations. Some of the philosophy behind LibriVox is a recreation of that interaction: not a professional performance of a text (there are plenty of those available), but instead an intimate experience of someone reading to you – with all the little warts and idiosyncrasies that come with intimate readings.

    For someone who aggressively promotes this philosophy, check out Miette, an occasional LibriVox volunteer, and one of the first audiolit podcasters in the universe. She is at once “professional” in sound and approach, and also intimate and personal. Her stuff is very much: Miette reading to you; rather than Miette performing a text. See:

    The other issues you’ve raise all relate to a common problem – this is true of much of the web in general – which is a misunderstanding of what LibriVox is for. Mainly, you are looking at LibriVox as “provider of audio books,” in the model of a traditional publisher whose job (at least as it is usually understood) is to produce books that readers want to purchase.

    It might be easier to consider LibriVox not as a publisher, but rather as a library, at least as far as our relations to the listeners are concerned. That is, you would not go into a library, pull out five random books, and say, “I didn’t like these books, this library is no good, the books here are all crap.” This is the same impulse people have when they say: “bloggers are self-obsessed, they rant and rave and have bad grammar, and I will never waste my time reading blogs because they are stupid.” … It’s true that some blogs are stupid, but not true of any I read, not true of this blog. So the problem is not “blogs”; the problem, among others, is that people don’t know how to find blogs that they like reading. And they are faced with a similar problem you express about LibriVox, because they say: “Well, you say there is good stuff on blogs, but how do I find it in the sea of crap?” You and I know the answer, but it’s not so clear how to express the ways to “find” good blogs to read in a general sense. In the non-web world, when you open a newspaper, you are guaranteed a certain quality/type of writing by the masthead; ditto when you open a Penguin Classic or a Vintage Paperback or when you walk into a certain section of the books store. The web world works differently, and the “guarantee” is delivered differently, in my case from something like “network authority.”

    But getting back to LibriVox, our objective is:
    “To make all books in the public domain available, for free, in audio format on the internet.”

    So we evaluate how we do things based on that objective. And partly for reasons of various kinds of idealism, but also in large part for pragmatic reasons, we’ve decided (rightly, I think), that criticism, ratings, particularly bad ratings are a hindrance to our objective, not a help. The main reason is that recording texts is difficult, and putting them out into public is a traumatic and sensitive thing for many people to do. Criticism, especially unsolicited negative criticism, turns people off from recording. But, we have an objective, stated above, and that objective is not: “To make the best audio …” or “BBC-quality audio …” Rather our objective is to record “all public domain texts.” We need all the help we can get, and we do what we can to “protect” our readers from harsh criticism that will stop them from participating.

    So in fact, I think it is entirely fair to say that (some) LibriVox recordings are dull. Or annoying. Or both. I agree with you. The point is, that that misses the point! [Though I do believe it’s unfair to say *most* LV recordings are dull or annoying].

    A few points of interest come out of this:
    a) there are plenty of professional, high-quality audiobooks available for a price; our books are free if anyone wants them (and if they don’t, no matter)
    b) if you compare our catalog to older “free” audio lit projects, projects that DO have high “standards” (eg literalsystems.org), our catalog is much bigger … which means that we have provided a resource, that would not be there otherwise, for those who want it. whether people like or use the resource or not is another question.
    c) in our large catalog, there is an impressive amount of beautifully-read stuff, searchable by reader, some great ones include: david barnes, andy minter, karen savage, gord mackenzie, kara shallenberg … the list is much longer.

    So the *result* of our fundamental policy to take all comers, and turn away no one, results in a strange catalog filled with lots of stuff that *is* dull, that *is* “badly” read, that *is* hard to listen to. But it also results in a much larger number of good recordings (mine, for instance, fall between badly-read and good); and a surprising number of extraordinary recordings, that I would put toe to toe with any professional recordings.

    Now your problem is finding the good stuff, and I sympathize with it. I think we could/should probably do something like an informal “recommendation” page. But again, if you look at our objective, helping people find good LibriVox stuff is not our “job.” …Our job is to make the audio, and make it available for free. .

    It’s the “job” of the rest of the web to start sorting out this resource we are providing, and sorting the good stuff. Metafilter is a work-around starting point, but eventually someone will put up a site that sifts thru librivox audio and finds the really good stuff. And if you follow links from our catalog page, you’ll get to the Internet Archive, where our audio is hosted, and there you will find some ratings. But we don’t publicize that.

    There is more to write on the relationship between ratings & an open project like LibriVox, but the ink in my pen is running out, and I wanted to touch on a couple more of your points.

    In particular: “To some degree I think he’s suggesting that Librivox is really more like a blog service where readers can express themselves via recording.”
    This is another misreading of what we are up to. LibriVox has a particular objective (quoted above). It is not for self-expression, etc., tho that might motivate some people. It’s got a very particular purpose, to provide a complete library of public domain books, in audio format. So, people are motivated to pitch in for lots of different reasons, but our decision-making about how or why we do things always has to answer to our objective.

    “It’s also the case that in reading a published work, the reader puts himself/herself in the position of performer/artist who is interpreting the work of another artist.”
    That is one way to look at it. You could also say, “the reader puts him/herself in the position of human who is doing their best to make a public domain text available in audio format.”

    Now I know you’ll probably say I am picking at semantic bones there, but the first motivation/role is not the same as the second, and they will result in different approaches to recording, and different results. And you can argue with me about the “value” of the first or second motivation, but in the end it doesn’t matter because I (and, generally, people who buy into what LibriVox is trying to do) disagree with you. And you might further say I (and the rest of the gang) are wasting our time, but it is our time to waste.

    Now if *everyone* said: “you’re wasting your time,” I and others might start scratching our heads, and wondering if this open project idea was kind of stupid after all. But we get enough emails & blog comments from people saying: “wow, what wonderful work you are doing,” that it’s easy enough to shrug the shoulders at those who say otherwise. And, amazingly to me, our audio books get downloaded thousands, and sometimes hundreds of thousands of times. For instance, Hobbes’ Leviathan, published by us 2 days ago, has been downloaded 1,671 times! In 2 days! … Which, you, as a writer of books will recognize is the kind of number that DOES appeal to the ego and excitement of the people who participate in LibriVox, for all sorts of non-altruistic reasons. Which is fine, because that kind of excitement helps us with our objective.

    Finally, to Puccini and Pavarotti, if I were them, I would be horrified to know that someone was telling people to stop singing in my name. That doesn’t mean I want to listen to bad opera, but there are so many reasons people don’t sing opera any more, so many reasons people don’t read any more, so many reasons people don’t celebrate literature, and I don’t want to be another contributor to all the things that discourage reading (or opera). I would much prefer to find ways to help encourage people to share literature, to discover great books – and mediocre books too – and to spread literature, to get closer to text, to reading, to the sounds of word and the ideas behind them; in the case of LirbiVox those people are behind the microphone, and on the other side of earphones…

    And in it’s essence, LibriVox is not about audio books, it is about people, of all types and all skills, reading and recording public domain texts, and making them available for free for anyone who wants to listen. We work hard to help that happen, and whatever happens next is something we spend much less time worrying about.

    PS. i’ve never been called a poobah before, but i watched a mediocre performance of the mikado by the mcgill savoy society last night (before reading this post), and wondered if poobah was invented by gilbert & sullivan, or whether it’s usage dates back later than that. wikipedia tells me g&s invented it, but it didn’t come into popular usage till the flintstones. i’d like to get more sources to confirm both assertions.

  2. Peter Kerry Powers Post author

    Thanks, Hugh. Again, many good things to think about here. Too late for me to get to tonight though. Maybe I’ll get back to it over the weekend. As for poohbah, I have no idea. Gilbert and Sullivan sound good to me. I would have guessed Dr. Suess.

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  4. miette49

    Some some links coming to my site and thought I’d see what all the fuss was. Always a most pleasant surprise to see Hugh as champion of the preservation of oral storytelling.

    There’s no shortage of thoughts I’d love to add, but my strepped throat seems to have infected my brain for the time being. However, Hugh, you’ve stumbled onto an etymological root: the Mikado was, in fact, responsible for poohbahs to come, yourself included.

    — Mtte.

  5. Peter Kerry Powers Post author

    Hugh, thanks so much for the extended responses to my own thinking, and also for posting it to your forum. I’ve very much enjoyed reading through the various responses and reflections people have offered about the kinds of experiences they have had with Librivox particularly, and with audiobooks more generally. Obviously, beyond the general mission you emphasize in your own post, there’s a way in which Librivox functions as an online community. So I’m much more the visitor who’s wandered in to temple from off the street without his head covering and prayer shawl. It’s been useful to see what the particular concerns and convictions of people in this corner of the literary world entail.

    I was going to post a response on your forum, but discovered I couldn’t get on since I’m not a member. And I thought I would defer for now, at least until I become more of a listener than a reader. I’m going to blog a bit over the next couple of days on some of the issues that you and your fellow librivoxians raise in the forum. Especially the following questions/themes: Are people who read a book and people who listen to one being read experiencing the same “work of literature,” something you seem to suggest in your earlier comments, and something several of the respondents on your forum state explicitly? What is the relationship between amateurism, professionalism, and evaluation in cultural work pursued online, such as that done by a place like Librivox? Finally, is there a potential conflict between the mission to be a library and the desire to be a community of readers/listeners, the one a form of public service and resource with forms of responsibility outside itself, the other serving its own internal purposes regardless of connections to others.

    (I actually may not get around to blogging on this since it seems more internal to Librivox itself, and since I’m not part of the group it’s not really my business what Librivox wants to be….In any case, I was struck by your sense that Librivox serves as a kind of library. On the other hand, I keep finding myself wishing it would be MORE of a library so that it would be more of a public service. One thing libraries always do is serve as initial points of evaluation and categorization, ordering and directing reading experiences in particular ways–even if only in saying, these things are worth purchasing and putting on our shelves, but really much beyond that. Librivox doesn’t really want to go that way–which is perfectly fine since by definition it can do what it wants in this regard. But because it doesn’t want to do some of that work, it becomes much less useful than a library for someone like me who is a casual patron. It’s more like a repository or a vault. When I ask, “what readers are really worth my time to listen to, and what books translate well from written to spoken form,” I feel a bit as if I’m being told “Oh, they are all equally wonderful, plunge on in.” Would that there were time. Because of this I end up dabbling here and there and if I’m lucky I run across someone I think can really read, who is reading a book that works well in spoken form.

    Nothing wrong with that, but it does limit to accident what is otherwise an enjoyable experience for me as someone who’s not likely to be a deep user of Librivox.

    In any case, I hope you’ll pass on my thanks to the other folks on your forum. There thinking–and passion!–has been very helpful. And please feel free to come back and carry on these disputations if you’d like. As I say, I’m probably going to post a couple of things over the next couple of days on these general issues, if not about Librivox specifically.

  6. hugh

    hi peter, it’s easy to sign up here if you like:

    It should be said that I don’t think that everyone will or should like listening to audio books, nor that that will like listening to LibriVox books. But I had a funny experience when the project started, and when I was listening to tons of audio as it came in, and then I heard a professional recording and I had to cover my ears to keep our the wretched sounds of that professional, modulated, actor;y performance of the text. I had become so accustomed to the human voices with all their little quirks. So part of why one wouldn’t like LV recordings is that normally we aren’t used to listening to a “recording” that sounds the way many LV recordings sound. And, unlike your niece on the violin, for most texts and most voices, the reader fades and the text takes over in a way that doesn’t happen with music. At least that’s been my experience.

    But again, I would not expect everyone to have a positive experience with audio books; and a smaller number will have a positive experience of LibriVox. But that’s fine.

    As to some of your questions:
    >”Are people who read a book and people who listen to one being read experiencing the same “work of literature,””
    I don’t think so. Reading a text to oneself is one thing; reading aloud is another; reading aloud to record (and then editing) something else altogether; and listening yet another experience. For me, none of these is the “same” experience of that work … I think different parts of the brain are involved in each. I think the point that I was making was:
    -there is value in listening to texts
    -even if no one ever listens to a LV recording, in some sense there is still great value in the project in getting many people to read and think about and work with texts like this, and something more interesting because the group does it as a community, which is somehow interesting & valuable in itself

    “What is the relationship between amateurism, professionalism, and evaluation in cultural work pursued online, such as that done by a place like Librivox?”
    This is a big, book-sized question, but I will answer by saying that for myself, the “professional” culture-makers often disappoint me, and often don’t provide what I seek … amateurs may fill a role there, and when they do they ought to be evaluated FIRST against the absence of what they have done (ie is a bad audio version of Einstein’s Relativity better than no audio version? I will say yes, every time to that question). And if you acknowledge that the mere existence of an amateur something is good, it’s the *next* order of business to decide how it might rank compared to other alternatives.

    “Finally, is there a potential conflict between the mission to be a library and the desire to be a community of readers/listeners, the one a form of public service and resource with forms of responsibility outside itself, the other serving its own internal purposes regardless of connections to others”
    Well, our first mission is to record all public domain texts. When we have done that we can start thinking about making great versions of all public domain texts (and in fact, our take-all approach is accompanied by a multiple-recordings policy … we encourage multiple versions of audio books, eg I think we have 3 versions of pride & prejudice).

    So the answer I guess is this: libraries only had the job to start selecting “good” books when there were enough books that they had to start deciding between one or another. Prior to that, I expect, the libraries of antiquity wanted every book. See also the Library of Congress. That’s what we aim to be: a complete library of audio versions of public domain texts; not a vault; but an archive; rather than a curated collection.

    But in this sense our internal purposes are actually external, it’s just that we have a long view of what that means.

    So yes, in the short term that means we are less useful to people; in the long term more useful.

    But I do agree we should have something like an informal recommendations page, for the reasons you describe. Because LV books are not equally wonderful, especially for the causal patron. In fact some of them are more equally wonderful than others.

    Here is another list, but it is long out of date:

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