That’s what it felt like to me, at least, when I tried listening to a free downloadable audiobook version of A Tale of Two Cities obtained from LibriVox, a crowdsourcing website recently recommended to me by a friend. For those who are not already familiar with it, LibriVox strives to make all books in the public domain available, free of charge, in audiobook format—a sort of read-aloud analog to Project Gutenberg. To accomplish this, thousands of volunteers around the globe record themselves reading and upload their work onto the site for anyone to use. A truly amazing resource.
Since I was in the mood to read something by my old hero Chuck D., I decided let LibriVox bring the noise and sample the vocal stylings of their volunteers. “Volunteers” (emphasis on the plural) being the key word, because, although most of them were pretty good readers, about 20 different people contributed the 45 chapters (each packaged online as an individual MP3 file) of the book. As I said, they were all decent, and it’s hard to criticize anyone who contributes free content like this as a labor of love and gift to the literary masses. But there were just too many voices for my taste, some with accents even more American than my own, and I struggled to switch gears with each chapter.
On the other hand (warning: shameless plug for the Lawrence Public Library ahead), a quick search of the library catalog yielded a free recording of A Tale of Two Cities in a downloadable format on the library’s OneClick Digital platform, and on CD , the former read by Simon Vance, an actor who has collected nearly every award out there for audiobook performances, and the latter a BBC dramatization featuring the work of Emmy and Screen Actors Guild honoree Charles Dance (of Gosford Park and Bleak House fame).
Simon Vance and Charles Dance are pretty hard to beat. “Their names even rhyme,” I smugly told my LibriVox-loving friend, who, over the years, has become quite weary of my constantly reminding her how much better the free stuff at the library is compared to a lot of other free stuff out there, or, even more satisfying and smugly proclaimed, stuff out there you have to pay for. As usual, she was in a forgiving mood, and waited a few days to respond to my complaint about the many-voiced Tale of Two Cities. Turns out that, as an experienced user of LibriVox, she was aware that there are often multiple versions of a work available on the site, and while some feature more than one reader, many do not. In fact, she gently informed me, there is another recording of A Tale of Two Cities I would have found if I had spent a bit more time (i.e. a few more seconds) looking around. And this version is performed by one person who has a British accent and shows some real acting chops in his characterizations, always the funnest part of listening to a Dickens novel.
So here I stand, corrected, and the better for it. Check out LibriVox if you are looking for an audio recording of a book in the public domain, interested in recording one yourself, or just plain curious. But don’t forget the professionals available at your local public library. To bring it back to Dickens, there really isn’t a best or worst between them, and this noisy authority, at least, insists on no superlative degree of comparison.