It’s time for an illustrated audio-e-book of Don Juan

Is it real­ly time for an illus­trat­ed, audio e-book of Don Juan? You bet! Here are three good rea­sons.

1. Illus­trat­ed ver­sions are out of print

Byron’s epic com­e­dy has nev­er been out of print, but illus­trat­ed ver­sions are hard to come by. My favourites are a 1927 edi­tion illus­trat­ed in fab­u­lous Deco style by John Austen (alas, out of print, but avail­able from rare-book deal­ers), and; The Anno­tat­ed Don Juan by Isaac Asi­mov (yes that Asi­mov) illus­trat­ed by Mil­ton Glaser, one of the icon­ic U.S. illus­tra­tors of the 20th cen­tu­ry (he cre­at­ed the I-heartf-NY logo) and designed by Alex Got­fryd. This too is out of print, although I bought myself a copy in great con­di­tion (inscribed by Glaser to his boss) a year or two back.

Cover of Isaac Asimov'e Annotated Don Juan
The Cov­er of Isaac Asimov’e Anno­tat­ed Don Juan with illus­tra­tions by Mil­ton Glaser

2. E-books are the best medi­um for illus­tra­tion

There is no illus­trat­ed e-pub of Byron: that is, a dig­i­tal book meant for read­ing as a book. That’s a great pity for two rea­sons. First, because Don Juan is — here and there, between Byron­ic digres­sions and some­times inside them — a very visu­al poem. Can­to One, espe­cial­ly, as a clas­sic bed­room-farce has lots of poten­tial. Sec­ond, books these days are rel­a­tive­ly expen­sive to pro­duce and dis­trib­ute, espe­cial­ly when they con­tain high-qual­i­ty colour illus­tra­tions (which adds to the weight, if only because of the paper required). E-books offer a much low­er-cost, eas­i­ly acces­si­ble medi­um that’s almost cost­less to dis­sem­i­nate even more wide­ly than books and weighs noth­ing.

Bet­ter still, with LCD screens head­ed for print-like-res­o­lu­tion — the iPad 3 screen is almost 300 ppi and the Mac­Book lap­top also now sports a “reti­na” screen — high qual­i­ty illus­tra­tion will soon be wide­ly avail­able. The low­est-cost e-read­ers are not there yet: Barnes’ and Noble’s Nook and the Ama­zon Kin­dle Fire offer only 170 pip for the present; about twice the res­o­lu­tion of the typ­i­cal desk­top screen. But the new Google Nexus 7 tablet has a love­ly low-cost LCD at 216 ppi. That’s approach­ing a den­si­ty where screen res­o­lu­tion pix­i­lates only when you “zoom” the dig­i­tal image.

3. E-books can read to you

The com­bi­na­tion of text and it’s per­for­mance in the same pub­li­ca­tion is an intrigu­ing option avail­able only with e-books.

Poet­ry, whose sound is pos­si­bly still more impor­tant than its print­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tion, is a per­fect tar­get for audio+text pub­li­ca­tion. When read­ing poet­ry for our­selves, we want to hear a poem spo­ken — and often ‘sub-vocal­ize’ when we don’t read out loud . But when read-to, we some­times want to see the text, too, to help us fol­low more com­plex pas­sages.

Will read­ers embrace a mixed-medi­um that includes the per­for­mance? That’s hard to say for sure.

(Pure) audio books are los­ing mar­ket share, prob­a­bly because they remained trapped by the phys­i­cal (CD) medi­um for far too long (like music CDs). The more rapid growth in sales of down­loaded audio-books has not been enough to restore their for­mer promi­nence despite the poten­tial demand among e.g. com­muters.

FORMAT 2008 2009 2010 % Chge 2009-10
Audio (Phys­i­cal)
Sales $305 $248.8 $217.9 12.4%
Mar­ket Share 2.3% 1.8% 1.6%
Audio down­loads
Sales $80.8 $100.6 $124.3 23.6%
Mar­ket Share 0.6% 0.7% 0.9%

Also, the aver­age qual­i­ty of nar­ra­tion in audio-books is , appar­ent­ly, a prob­lem. When I look at what’s on offer in com­mer­cial audio-books of Don Juan, I’m inclined to agree.

But the audio-for­mat for per­for­mance art, such as poet­ry, has strong appeal. What we hear pours into our imag­i­na­tion still more direct­ly than what we read. I sus­pect that hear­ing the poem read will make it more fun for peo­ple who would not con­sid­er read­ing it for the first time but who might, on a sec­ond occa­sion, want to read it for them­selves.

The audio e-book is a new con­cept in pub­lish­ing. It became wide­ly avail­able only late last year when Apple’s iBooks first imple­ment a ver­sion of “read-aloud” books, aimed at the children’s book mar­ket. The typ­i­cal read-aloud book has an audio-track that reads the con­tent of the book as the indi­vid­ual words are high­light­ed. Prob­a­bly, the idea was to help new read­ers iden­ti­fy the words and to put words and sounds togeth­er.

Then, ear­ly in 2012, the Inter­na­tion­al Dig­i­tal Pub­lish­ing Forum (IDPF) pub­lished the third indus­try-stan­dard spec­i­fi­ca­tions for e-pub­li­ca­tions that encour­ages all pub­lish­ers and device man­u­fac­tur­ers to imple­ment audio-enabled e-books in the same way (E-Pub 3.0). Now a grow­ing list of device and soft­ware allows simul­ta­ne­ous text and audio includ­ing iBooks (Apple), Kobo (owned by Rakuten), Azar­di (Info­grid Pacif­ic) and Rea­d­i­um (an e-pub read­er cre­at­ed by the IDPF itself for Google’s Chrome web-brows­er).

In every one of these envi­ron­ments you can choose to hear the book read-aloud or choose to turn off the audio and read for your­self. I hope read­ers will try both.

Two (better) recordings of Don Juan

In the last post I briefly reviewed the only two com­mer­cial record­ings of Byron’s Don Juan that I have been able to find. Nei­ther was much to my taste, although I’d be inter­est­ed to hear from any­one who has a kinder opin­ion.

There are a cou­ple of non-com­mer­cial record­ings that I’d like to rec­om­mend to you. I think each of them is bet­ter than David­son or Bethune, although nei­ther is com­plete.

The first is a record­ing made in (I’m guess­ing) the 1940’s by Tyrone Pow­er. His voice has a love­ly nat­ur­al tim­bre; his pro­jec­tion is great (from low in the chest). He gets a lot of vari­a­tion of into­na­tion and pace and he speaks the poet­ry seri­ous­ly, but with mean­ing, catch­ing not only the rhythms but the rhyme that car­ries so much of the humour in Don Juan.

Of course, Pow­er had the looks and the agili­ty to be the Don Juan from Cen­tral Cast­ing. His Mark of Zor­ro was the the sec­ond movie ver­sion of the Zor­ro tale — the first being the styl­ish Dou­glas Fair­banks’ 1920 ver­sion. But Pow­er and Basil Rath­bone made the fran­chise indeli­bly theirs. He was a very good actor with a nat­u­ral­ly cred­i­ble lead­ing-male style and a fine expres­sive touch who was trapped for many years by 20th Cen­tu­ry Fox in ‘swash­buck­ling’ roles. If you’ve nev­er seen him in the last movie he com­plet­ed — Bil­ly Wilder’s 1957 movie of Agatha Christie’s Wit­ness for the Pros­e­cu­tion with Mar­lene Deitrich and Charles Laughton — then you’ve missed one of the great­est movies of the 20th cen­tu­ry. Alas, he died of a mas­sive heart attack on the set of Solomon and She­ba (1958) in the midst of a duel with George Sanders.

I’m sor­ry that Pow­er does not appear to have record­ed all of even Can­to One of Don Juan. But I offer below an excerpt from the record­ing avail­able here (there seems to be a rip-off avail­able on CD on Ama­zon, too). In the excerpt, Pow­er is heard read­ing vers­es 138 to 142 of Can­to One, at the point where Julia’s jeal­ous hus­band, Alfon­so, bursts into her bed­room in the mid­dle of the night, look­ing for her lover (Juan, unknown to Alfon­so).

The final record­ing I offer for your review is my own. I record­ed this ver­sion in March, 2012, short­ly before I first came across the Tyrone Pow­er ver­sion. I’m delight­ed to find that my approach is not far from his. This is the record­ing that I’ll be issu­ing as part of the illus­trat­ed audio ebook to be real eased in the next few weeks. I’d love to know what you think.

Two recordings of Don Juan

I admit this is an eccen­tric project. Record­ing a very long poem from the ear­ly 19th cen­tu­ry and pre­sent­ing it in an illus­trat­ed e-book ‘wrap­per’ may turn out to be a waste of effort. Who knows? Not me!

But I sus­pect there is a large num­ber of peo­ple who have nev­er been exposed to Byron’s clever, provoca­tive romance and who are not like­ly to find out how much fun it is until they hear it. That’s what led me to record it in the first place and, so far there are going on 90,000 down­loads of my record­ings of Can­tos One, Five and Thir­teen-thru-Six­teen sug­gest­ing I was right.

I know of only two com­mer­cial “audio-book” record­ings of Don Juan, both in the Audi­ble library. In this post, I’ll review both of them. In my next post I’ll review a much bet­ter, but incom­plete, (now) wide­ly avail­able record­ing from a great star of Hollywood’s Gold­en Era and sub­mit my own record­ings for your com­par­i­son.

The only two com­mer­cial record­ings in the Audi­ble library are:

Fred David­son has great vari­a­tion in pitch and man­ages female voic­es very well. He has good pac­ing and very clear dic­tion. But I find his deliv­ery man­nered and “thes­pi­an.” To me, this makes Byron’s con­ver­sa­tion­al tone of voice sound con­de­scend­ing and even ‘fey’ rather than con­fi­den­tial or sar­cas­tic.

David­son makes some strange choic­es in pro­nun­ci­a­tion, too, of which the worst is that he pro­nounces “Juan” as “huwan”… a com­pro­mise between the Span­ish pro­nun­ci­a­tion and Byron’s jokey angli­cis­ing of the hero’s name. The result is a sound that isn’t right in Span­ish (“h’wan”) or as an angli­cised word (it must be pro­nounced “who won” for the rhyme to be accu­rate) and it ruins Byron’s joke.

But most irri­tat­ing of all, in the Davi­son record­ing, he (or his pro­duc­er) has decid­ed that he should read every­thing on the page includ­ing the Stan­za num­bers! Good grief, we’re lucky he didn’t give us pages, too!

Of course, you should judge for your­self. Here’s a short sam­ple of David­son read­ing three vers­es, tak­en from the begin­ning of the Poem: the Ded­i­ca­tion. You can find a longer sam­ple at the links above.

Robert Bethune may be a Cana­di­an. He has that attrac­tive Cana­di­an burr to his accent that I pre­fer to Fred­er­ick Davidson’s nasal Eng­lish tone. But Bethune’s deliv­ery is clipped; some­how slight­ly choked in his throat and he has a rhotacism (swal­low­ing his ‘r’) that is some­times notice­able. He sounds like he’s sit­ting at his desk lean­ing over the micro­phone.

Bethune’s pitch is not as var­ied, and his pac­ing not as sure as Davidson’s, with the result that he falls a bit too eas­i­ly into a “poet­ic” into­na­tion, singing the same pat­tern of tones through­out each verse. His pro­nun­ci­a­tion is not man­nered like Davidson’s and he takes advan­tage of the con­ver­sa­tion­al tone of the poem to allow each line and each stan­za to “flow” into the next. But this also means he muffs some of the jokes that Byron often packs into the final rhyming-cou­plet punch line of his stan­zas.

Again, you should lis­ten for your­self. Here are three vers­es (28–30) from Can­to IV: a longer excerpt can be found at the Audi­ble link, above. I have not lis­tened to much of Bethune’s record­ing but I’m a lit­tle sur­prised to find that this short selec­tion con­tains an error: “dear” for “clear” in Stan­za 30.

I would real­ly like to hear your views of these record­ings: espe­cial­ly if you dis­agree with me. What am I miss­ing in the David­son and Bethune record­ings? If you love them (or even like them), why? Please let me know.

The Middling Class may kiss my a…

I do not in any way affect to be squea­mish – but the char­ac­ter of the Mid­dling Class in the coun­try – is cer­tain­ly high­ly moral – and we should not offend them – as you cur­tail the num­ber of your read­ers – and for the rest of the sub­ject of Don Juan is an excel­lent one – and noth­ing can sur­pass the exquis­ite beau­ties scat­tered so lav­ish­ly through the first two Can­tos.“
The estimable, but exquis­ite­ly squea­mish, John Mur­ray (his pub­lish­er) warn­ing Byron of a like­ly harsh reac­tion from con­ser­v­a­tive taste, before he pub­lished the first two Can­tos, anony­mous­ly, in 1819.