As It Happens

Hear what may be the first full-length audio book, found in Canada

Matthew Rubery thinks he has found the first full-length audio book, a 1935 recording of Joseph Conrad's 'Typhoon'.
Side 2 of the Royal National Institute of Blind People's 1935 recording of Joseph Conrad's novella 'Typhoon' (Mike Dicecco)

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Matthew Rubery has found what he believes is the first full-length audio book — a 1935 recording of Joseph Conrad's 'Typhoon'.

The recordings were made by the Royal National Institute of Blind People in London for veterans of the First World War. Rubery, a professor of Modern Literature at Queen Mary University, had been searching for them as he researched his new book, 'The Untold Story of the Talking Book'.
The long play records were produced on brittle shellac and Rubery says that most of what he found had been broken into pieces. Then, as he explains to As It Happens host Carol Off, he was contacted by a Canadian collector.
Matthew Rubery, Professor of Modern Literature at Queen Mary University of London. (Matthew Rubery/Rupa Photography)

Matthew Rubery:    I've been corresponding for about a year now with a vintage record collector named Mike Dicecco, and we would talk about some other discs — we just shared an interest in discs that played at unusual rates — and it only came to our attention a few weeks ago that he had one of these first recordings made for blind people.

Carol Off:    How did he end up with the recording?

MR:    I can only speculate on this, but my guess is that the first talking books in Britain were made for soldiers who were blinded during the war and they didn't have any other way to read. They couldn't read brail so the talking book program was started so they'd have a form of entertainment. A lot of these soldiers did go back to Commonwealth countries, including Canada, and I'm guessing that this soldier just took back this set of records, maybe one of the gramophones or phonograph players to play them on and that it ended up in the collector's hands at some point. 
Matthew Rubery's 'The Untold Story of the Talking Book' is published by Harvard University Press. (Harvard University Press)

CO:    Why do you suspect that this is the first talking book — Joseph Conrad's 'Typhoon'?

MR:    Well, I know the first three books that were recorded. So, the first recording was either Joseph Conrad's 'Typhoon', or Agatha Christie's 'The Murder of Roger Ackroyd'. I've never been able to figure out exactly which one was recorded first, but I do know — just from quotations in interviews that I've read — that the very first reader of the first talking book was a man named Anthony MacDonald, and he is the reader of the Joseph Conrad records, so that makes me suspect that this is the first recording. 

CO:    How would they choose this particular novel to record for soldiers who had been blinded?   

MR:     It is a bit of a mystery to me why they would choose this one. Conrad did have other stories with storytellers. I mean, Marlow is another famous storyteller, but they didn't choose that one. Conrad also wrote other stories with blind characters, but they didn't chose that one. They chose this one which is just a classic sea yarn. I'm thinking it's just a good ol' seafaring adventure tale that was a form of escapism, and a lot of readers at the time just wanted to be entertained and to hear a really good story, and Conrad's reputation at the time was as a popular storyteller.

CO: Are there any recordings that you're still looking for?

MR: Yeah, I'm hoping some of these records will turn up eventually. I looked all over Britain, I looked all over the United States for some of these recordings. I hadn't so much looked in Canada for some reason. That's one reason why this lucky find has caught me off guard ... The Agatha Christie records are still missing, the Gospel According to John are still missing and then one or two others. So, if anyone has an old record for blind people up in their attic, please let me know.

For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Matthew Rubery


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