Oral History, Aural Culture

Audiobooks offer access to the distant history of human artistic expression through technology, an ironic fact that flies in the face of print purists. Before ebooks, there were print books, and before that manuscripts, tablets…and oral tradition. Audiobooks can give us back that visceral discovery of a bigger culture beyond our family’s home and our neighbors’ conversations that oral storytelling first provided.

To regain the experience of pre-literate narrative, not any performance available in recording will do. Here, the issues of pacing and tone need to be sensitive to delivering a work as though the audience cannot encounter it in print. Given the reality that such audios, made now, offer the original works in new languages (modern English, for example!), care to emulate storytelling rather than book-reading is required to keep the listener engaged as much as possible as would audiences of millennia back.

Why bother? With publishing continuing to produce more possibilities for listening to works that were born as print, or born into print-reliant culture, why listen like an ancient? Because roots matter: taking the time and effort to hear the deliberate orality of narratives that have indeed survived generations before being trapped in writing, translated, reconceived for television or advertising soda, refreshes our human connections to a collective history in which details of an event could be arranged through human art into a performance that gave the audience reason to keep that past event in mind as they moved ahead into the future.

Sometimes, renewing one’s dedication to carrying on requires hearing the ancient past. Here are some audios that offer that opportunity to listeners willing to submerge in the roots of reading.

Aesop’s fables are available in collections and as singular episodes in a host of picture books, illustrated and unillustrated compilations, and audio. Finding an aural version that doesn’t insert modern bells and whistle—or bars of guitar—is optimal for this listening experience. Try Jonathan Kent’s performance for Tantor.

Homer, of course, receives enough attention to sink a ship—oops, no, that was the various bad guys who live on with the heroes in the warrior accounts he spoke and didn’t write out himself. Stanley Lombardo’s performance of “The Iliad,” for Parmenides Audio, is a good choice for listeners who aren’t wed to a specific translation and who seek the primacy of listening over text analysis. The one issue with this recording for this particular purpose is its inclusion of little introductions (read by Susan Sarandon) to each books, explanations which should be foregone if one seeks a more authentic visit to a time when epic delivery got to stand on its own.

Choctaw storyteller Tim Tingle provides an array of recorded opportunities for going a-literate in one’s listening. Cinco Puntos Press produced his Walking the Choctaw Road collection with its historic range from traditional narratives that have descended through generations to stories he’s created involving his own family life.