Reading in the Digital Age: Audiobooks by Librivox

Reinhard Mueller

Multimodal Writing, Pedagogy

This image shows eight books of different colors in a row (as if on a bookshelve) next to each other. They are embraced by headphones. The background is white.

Tired eyes from pushing through your reading list? Planning a road trip? Or just trying to cram some productive time into your commute? Long reading lists of classic texts might appear long and daunting. But for over 11 years, Librivox has made our lives easier by providing a digital platform for free audiobooks — perhaps not the latest thriller (try your local library!), but maybe including something from your comprehensive exam list or next semester’s syllabus.

Started in 2005 by Hugh McGuire, a Montreal-based writer and developer, Librivox was founded to provide the “acoustic liberation of books in the public domain,” McGuire explains in an interview. The first book recorded was The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad, the first chapter read by McGuire, followed by other readers for the other chapters. This year, in August 2016, Librivox announced that it has uploaded its 10,000th project to the website: Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio (Volume 1) by Songling Pu, recorded as a group project by more than 20 LibriVox volunteers.

LibriVox’s official mission is “to make all books in the public domain available, for free, in audio format on the internet.” It relies fully on volunteers who read chapters of books that are proofread by members of the LibriVox community and then published in the digital library. LibriVox works with the Gutenberg Project — the source for the public-domain texts — and with the Internet Archive, which also hosts their offerings. Chapters of audiobooks can be listened to and downloaded on the LibriVox website; the Internet Archive hosts separate MP3 and Ogg Vorbis files for downloads; many of the recordings can also be found on YouTube.

Offering texts that are in the US public domain, most of the audiobooks are popular classic texts of fiction. While 90% of all recordings are in English, LibriVox altogether hosts audiobooks in 31 different languages, the most popular of them being Chinese, French, and German. It offers many classic texts, such as the Bible in various languages and translations, Homer’s Odyssey and Illiad, a Latin reading of Cicero’s Speeches against Catilina, and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. It even includes many recordings of texts from the traditional canon of rhetoric, for example Plato’s Gorgias, Phaedrus, and Protagoras, Aristotle’s Rhetoric, Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria, Erasmus’s Praise of Folly, and Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

And there are even many non-fiction texts that might be surprising to find, such as a reading of the US constitution, a recording of the prime numbers from 2 to 17,389, and an audiobook of chocolate and candy recipes.

Is there something that we lose? One might argue that when listening to important classical texts instead of reading them, we unlearn the ability to read closely and critically because we are distracted doing other things when listening. However, I personally do both: while listening to a recording I also read and try to take notes. For me, LibriVox is an especially helpful tool for difficult books, such as James Joyce’s Ulysses (which I am reading and listening to this semester), where different voices in the audio recording help to distinguish different characters and streams-of-consciousness in the narrative, for which I would normally need two or more readings. But even beyond such difficult texts, LibriVox also helps bring back many classical texts to today’s digital age by making them easily accessible to everyone.

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