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  • The Spoken Word: Writers. Historic Recordings of Writers Born in the 19th Century
  • Jim Chevallier
The Spoken Word: Writers. Historic Recordings of Writers Born in the 19th Century. Compiled by Steve Cleary, Richard Fairman, and Toby Oakes. London: British Library, 2003. CD-ROM. £9.95. ISBN 0-7123-0516-5.

Despite a decidedly plain cover, this somewhat sedate collection might well have found a wide audience for one simple reason: it includes a rare reading from The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien himself. Brief as it is, it captures both his evident delight in storytelling and the distinct differences in tone of the books' invented languages. After finishing this review, I visited the British Library's site and discovered that, unfortunately, due to unspecified copyright issues, this collection will no longer be sold. Those whose interest is piqued by the following may have to visit London to hear the recordings in question.

To a modern American ear most of the voices in this collection share a cultured but bland upper-class English inflection. There are some vivid exceptions: Conan Doyle's slight Scottish burr, James Joyce's dense music, Agatha Christie's down-to-earth exposition, and Noël Coward's theatrical yet distinctive diction. Overall, though, this is not one of those spoken word collections that offer rich auditory pleasures. Still, the content is well chosen and nicely varied. Roughly half the writers read from (or, in Coward's case, perform) their own work. The others offer ideas about writing or other subjects that are, in general, succinct and enlightening.

Bernard Shaw begins with an account of the touring companies that were his early bread and butter. Arthur Conan Doyle follows, first with the relatively well-known story of how a medical professor inspired Sherlock Holmes, then with reflections on how Holmes changed not only the mystery genre but also forensics. Rudyard Kipling speaks vigorously of literature in a low-key tone. H. G. Wells argues for the value of foresight, pointing out "how unprepared our world was for the motorcar," then enumerates all its effects—congestion, pollution, and so on—that might have been anticipated. Max Beerbohm describes reading work by a woman author he (rather surprisingly) admits to having once treated with condescension. G. K. Chesterton, asked to speak on "The Spice of Life," gracefully and evocatively turns our attention to "The Spice of Death." Somerset Maugham confesses that his fiction has always grown from people he's met: "I have taken living people and put them in the situations, comic or tragic, which seem to suit their character."

Edgar Wallace reads a dark yarn that with a few regional changes might have come from Flannery O'Connor. Johan Buchan follows with an homage to Walter Scott, optimistically stating that "he is beyond the ebb and flow of fashion." Harley Granville Baker finds "faith extending to everyday things" in how readers respond to fiction. E. M. Forster offers qualified support for both democracy and a free press. P. G. Wodehouse tells a humorous tale of being arrested in France: "There is probably nobody in the world less elfin than a French jailer."

Virginia Woolf's thoughts on words are passionate and complex: "Words, English words, are full of echoes and associations." James Joyce follows, with the longest excerpt here (over eight minutes), reading from Finnegans Wake, tempting this listener to turn out the lights and bob on the waves of Joyce's exquisite Irish music.

Pleasant enough pieces by Compton Mackenzie and Hugh Walpole give way to the tonic voice of Agatha Christie, telling how she became a writer ("There's nothing like boredom to make you write"). Vita Sackville-West reads an unpublished passage from Orlando to the audible amusement of a crowd. Aldous Huxley offers astringent thoughts on "righteous wars": "Christian soldiers, copulating soldiers . . . The God of battles is always the God of brothels." J. B. Priestley echoes Beerbohm in confessing to both "contempt" for and "respect and fear" of women.

The collection ends with Noël Coward and Gertrude Lawrence in a scene from Private Lives, providing, with music and a song, a kind of dessert to the...


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