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  • Play It Again, Sam Weller:New Digital Audiobooks and Old Ways of Reading
  • Matthew Rubery (bio)

Ahem. The speaker is about to read aloud Nancy's murder, a brutal tableau from Oliver Twist (1837–39) ritually performed before the public since Dickens' first recitation of this scene at St. James's Hall as part of a Farewell Tour in 1869. The 'Murder', as the author preferred to call it, would soon become part of Dickens lore for the violence with which it ended the life not only of the novel's heroine but also of the novelist himself.1 The 'Sikes and Nancy' episode begins with the narrator's voice as one of the boy thieves is instructed to 'dodge' a young woman through the streets of London. The ensuing voices are those of Fagin ('my dear'), Bolter ('Oh Lor!'), and Sikes ('Wot now?'), whose Cockney accents are performed in markedly different registers from that of the preceding narrator.2 In fact, each of the characters is set apart by a distinct sound to ensure that audiences can tell who is speaking without access to the written script. The prompt copy used by Dickens for this scene signals the building momentum toward Sikes' terrible act of violence with the marginal stage direction 'XX Murder coming XX'.3 This is the moment during the recitation when Dickens was said by spectators to have flung aside the script in order to perform the scene from memory.4 The audience for the performance has little choice but to sit back and wait for the impending murder since the pace of narration is controlled entirely by the speaker, not the auditor. It is a tense wait. The recitation of a scene that takes a mere ten minutes to read silently to one's self can take upwards of forty minutes when read aloud before an audience. Although both experiences might make the flesh creep, reading the novel in silence is a very different experience from that of listening to Nancy's murder.

Now that Nancy's murder has caught your ear, let me assure you that this is not another account from an ear-witness to one of the nearly 500 public readings given by Dickens to audiences across England and America.5 There is no lectern, maroon backcloth, or blaze of gaslamps [End Page 58] set up for this reading; no magisterial bearded figure in evening dress; and certainly no mesmerising eye contact between orator and audience. Instead, this is an account of listening to one of a dozen recordings of Dickens' novel readily available to twenty-first-century audiences in the form of digital audiobooks – online 'talking books'. At no point in history has it been so easy to listen to the reading aloud of Victorian literature. The reader for this particular performance is not Dickens but one of those inspired by him, from amateur enthusiasts to professional actors: Martin Jarvis, Anton Lesser, Alex Jennings, Nadia May, Fabio Camero, Miriam Margolyes, Flo Gibson, the St. Charles Players, and many other first-time readers. Whereas the majority of audio books marketed today continue to rely on promotional tools designed for print, the publisher's blurb for this recording emphasises what is most distinctive about the audiobook format: 'Hear Dickens' gift for social commentary in this classic story of the poor orphan, Oliver'.6 This is a double invitation – 'Hear Dickens' gift' – to listen to the tale being read aloud as well as to the latent aurality of a literary narrative itself designed as much for the ear as the eye.

The growing popularity of audiobooks over the last decade means that literary critics may no longer be able to turn a blind eye – or a deaf ear, in this case – to the ways in which oral delivery influences the reception of literature. Digital audio may compel those of us accustomed to silent reading to heed recent calls to refine our skills in 'close listening'.7 The following discussion will consider the potential impact new digital audio technology is having over the way we think about literature and its reception. To do so, this piece will introduce the latest audio innovations in as straightforward...