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The Antique Audiobook; Capote on Vinyl

I approached finding my audiobook in the wild by thinking about the relationship of the author’s voice to a work of fiction. The comparison of the audible voice, versus the stylistic written voice seemed like it could have a pushing and pulling effects in the perception of a story. I immediately thought of Truman Capote, whose voice is famously distinct and whose style is distinctly rich in description which has the effect, to me of being equally tight and intimate, as it is ethnographic and isolated. I chose to find a recording of him reading any of his short stories, or an excerpt from a novel. I’ve read a lot of his work, but not recently, so I thought that any story would be a good example of this performance. I searched online for a recording of him reading his short story “A Christmas Memory,” and found a video on Youtube of the recording, which was originally published on vinyl in 1959. This them really set me out into the wild as I tried to instead find a physical copy of it to play on my record player at home. The album cost $60 on Amazon, and would not arrive until September 17th so that wouldn’t work; I called every record store in New York and notable ones outside (but nearby) the city with no luck. I called the New York Public Library who advised me on the proper search terms to locate it in their archives; they had 2 copies, available to listen to at the Library of Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.

At the library I was hoping to be able to sit with a record player to have the physical interaction of setting up the record, flipping it to the B-side, etc. but they have it set up where they hook you up to a computer and a person “in the basement” (the librarian told me specifically they were in the basement), plays it on the record player down there. This added a new component to the physicality of this audio, because it added a new author and participant to the mix. I was not listening to the audiobook alone, but through the discernment and acuity of an incognito librarian in a basement somewhere under me. I was especially aware of this while waiting for the story to begin playing, and even more-so when I waited for this person—who played the roles of technician, co-listener with me, and co-author with Capote—to flip to the B side of the track to play the second half of the story. This interruption gave me a time that I would not have given for myself to contemplate the story so far, which would not have existed with a typical audiobook playing all the way through. It also made me cognizant of what control Capote would have had over where this break occurred: it was at the end of paragraph and sentence, but I wonder if he made the decision of which paragraph to flip the record on, how much space or leeway there was on each side of the track for him to have a choice in this decision or if it was purely dictated by the size of the sides. This was something I would have been interested to make an assessment on based on the appearance of the vinyl, but alas I was not allowed access to it.

As they would not give me the record, I had to make a special request to see the sleeve. This actually proved an instrumental tool in my reading of the audio book. The front of the sleeve had artwork by the artist Gray Foy, who I learned was a prominent and widely respected surrealist artist of the 20th century, while the middle and back of the sleeve has the entire story printed on it. Both of these visuals created a physical space upon which to navigate the story as I listened to it, creating a physical space much closer to a book than the typical audiobook.  But even the tangible flatness of a record sleeve gave a strange two-dimensional effect to a story which when traditionally printed is around 40 pages.

 

Listening to the audio presented the questions I expected to encounter entering the project: I was confronted with Capote’s unique sound and inflections, where he stumbled on words, missed (or skipped) sentences, changed his voice, even slightly, to match his conception of the characters. These affected the story by giving me a hyper-truthful understanding of his intentions of the story; however, it disrupted my reading (or, rather, listening) by giving me little room to impose my own interpretations. There was also symphonic music by Irving Joseph that sandwiched Capote’s reading of the text, a music that also imposed a mood and feeling onto my perception of the text. Ambient noise such as the fuzziness from the record player which came through on my head phones, the occasional quiet scratch and scrape, as well as the not-completely-noiseless pause when the record was flipped which was a silence filled with ultra-low, ambient bumps and “woosh” sounds. They made me aware of my own context, as well as the age and antiquated novelty of the record itself (this copy was 59 years old.) On a text that is all about the prevalence of memory, the participation with time and space in reading it, as well as in what most people of my generation would call an old-fashioned environment to listen to an audio book (the library).

I ended out finding that the typical questions of the effects of sound on a text in the audiobook was a lot less interesting to me than the odd physicality of the audiobook on vinyl. The record itself, which is made of its own language and modes of inscription and form, and the way they re-created the experience of the traditionally written text, next to the sleeve with the text written out invented a unique space and an unconventional audiobook experience. It reaffirmed a certain level of grounding in the technology and act of inscription onto a surface that texts, and this text especially, cannot seem to escape, and forced my participation with it.

 

One thought on “The Antique Audiobook; Capote on Vinyl

  1. I like the emphasis on the multimodal aspect of the recording. Bolter/Grusin’s classic work on “remediation” extends McLuhan’s analysis of the relationship between medium/message in ways your example touches on.

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