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.