Greg Gatenby owns the largest private collection of literary vinyl in the world. He's been collecting recordings of authors and poets reading and speaking for about 30 years. But now Gatenby, the founder and former artistic director of Harbourfront's International Festival of Authors in Toronto, is selling his collection -- but not before sitting down with Carol Off of As It Happens to play a few of his favourite recordings.
Gatenby's collection started by accident. "I was in a bookstore...and I stumbled across a recording of the French author Collette sticking out from among the Collette books," he says. "Even though I was the artistic director of the readings at Harbourfront, I didn't know that there were recordings of authors' voices like that."
When Gatenby paid for the record, the clerk told him there was "an E.M. Forrester back up there too!" So he bought them both, for "his own amusement," he says. But he soon became curious about others. "I was traveling a lot in those days and I made a point of going to used record stores and it was always the same spiel when I went in: I would say 'do you have any spoken word records of authors voices?' and they would scratch their heads, because I guess they didn't get a lot of demand for that, and say 'well I think there might be in that box in the back room there under the comedians from the 40s....'"
So Gatenby would search through dusty milk crates full of LPs, and if he was lucky, he'd come up with a gem.
Over the years, he comes up with many. If you listen to the episode above, you'll hear Gatenby play excerpts from recordings of Collette, Irish poet Brendan Behan, Rudyard Kipling, Tennessee Williams, Pablo Neruda, and rare and wonderful recording of Maya Angelou as her alter ego Miss Calypso in the days when she was known more as a calypso singer than as a poet.
He also has in his collection an 1889 (yes, you read that right) recording of the poet Robert Browning reciting one of his verses for Thomas Edison. It's the first known audio recording of a poet. Gatenby doesn't play it for As It Happens, but we've managed to find a copy of the recording on YouTube. You can listen to this rare audio portal to the past below:
Gatenby's collection is a rich archive. He's selling it because, simply, he needs the money. "I'm an author trying to live in English Canada -- not so easy these days," he says. "I'm trying to sell them in a way that keeps the collection intact. My hope that someone of wealth will buy it and donate it to a Canadian library or institution."