The sound and the sense of Don Juan

Jeanne-Françoise Julie Adélaïde Récamier painted 1802 by François (Baron) Gérard
Jeanne-Françoise Julie Adélaïde Récamier painted 1802 by François (Baron) Gérard

Sam. Johnson famously observed that only a blockhead would write for no money. He might also have said that only a fool tries to self-publish; a sad fool if it’s poetry. So, foolishly, I’ve been looking for a better way to distribute my newer recordings of Don Juan so that they’ll be accessible for more people and, I hope, more visible.

I used to make my recordings available to But I don’t like their insistence on branding the recordings to themselves and their indifference to marketing. I have no present intention of charging for these recordings but I no longer have any intention, either, of placing them in the public domain. The effect of doing so is to loose all control of the distribution and quality. Fortunately, so far, the re-publishers of whom I’m aware – YouTube and other streaming sites – have not bothered to change anything; only putting a ‘cover’ on the recording.

The sound and the sense

Besides, I am equally interested in both the sound and the text of the poem. The narration is only a performance of the poem; fleeting, a figment. Of course it’s supposed to sound as Byron may have wished it to sound. He must have had some sound in mind, or why bother with the demanding constraints of ottawa rima? He certainly chose words in part for their metre and sound and the narration must convey this music. But Byron chose among themes and expressions for reasons the narration can barely hint at, and never fully capture.

You need the text for that; and even commentary on the text. Does that ruin it for my listeners?

I hope the opposite might be true. Don Juan is great entertainment, but it is still more fun when you understand the jests, satirical barbs, personal confessions and evasions and that, today, are no longer evident on the surface that narration skims. For his contemporaries, the poem contained so many provocations that John Murray could bring himself to publish only the first five Cantos of the greatest comic epic in English and then anonymously. It is a great pity to miss out on them.

Byron brings to his greatest work a classical education and a sense of his social environment that is now antique, although combined with elements that were radical for his time. Too, he has a fascinating personal history — somewhat obscured by a rakish, romanticised reputation — and a fascination with his own psychology as an author that is entirely modern. Alas, only notes on the text can give every punch-line the weight it deserves or reveal where Byron pulls a punch to save himself some pain.

Publishing and distributing my own narrations and texts, however, needs an economic and easily accessible channel to readers and listeners. One upon a time I might have considered, for example, including a sound recording on CD with a printed book. (If you purchased any of those huge computer-related tomes popular in the 1990s you will remember the format; the plastic CD sleeve pasted in the back cover.) But the Internet has made that formula expensive and nearly obsolete. The assault of music-streaming means fewer people bother to own a CD player. Besides, only big publishers and big stores can now provide a book+CD distribution network. It would still be possible to combine print and audio with an on-line ‘companion site’ for the printed book. I may go in that direction one day. But, as of now, the market for my narration is too small to warrant it and my annotated texts are only an experiment. So digital distribution is likely to remain my choice if only for economic reasons.

Audio-enabled ePub

Which digital format, then? I’ve tried only one, so far: ePub. Specifically, a form of ePub defined by the International Digital Publishing Forum as ePub 3.1 that provides for a standard ‘audio overlay’ format for the ePub text. When I published Canto I of Don Juan in September 2012 only Apple iBooks fully implemented this format but – as is inevitable with Apple – using some proprietary extensions. Unless you have a Mac or iPhone, iPad (or a later iPod) you will have trouble playing it.

Slowly, other companies are producing software capable of playing the ‘page-by-page’ overlay; more or less accurately.

On a Mac or PC the Adobe Digital Editions software (version 4.0) or, on the iPad, IPhone and Android platforms the Menestrello app will play the iBook ePub while doing different kinds of damage to the presentation.

Still better than both of these, at present, is the Readium plugin for the Google Chrome browser. If you download the free ePub of Canto 1 from the Apple iBook Store (use this iTunes link) and save it to your local disk, you should be able to import it into Readium with acceptable results.

PDF with embedded audio

What about other formats for text + audio?

Adobe has released a sort of ‘slide presentation’ format based on their Adobe Air (ShockWave-replacement) platform. I’ve made a short Adobe Voice presentation on the Dedication to Don Juan with some verse extracts. But Voice files are huge; Adobe evidently intends that they be brief (~1 min.) presentations streamed from Adobe’s own cloud. Not really an option for Don Juan.

There is, too, a (chiefly) Adobe means of embedding audio in a PDF file. Now it happens that PDF is probably my favoured format for distribution of an annotated text. As a page description language, PDF provides strong control over layout, ensuring that what I devise appears in just that form on every platform that displays PDF (there are dozens of these). Furthermore, PDF is a ‘first class citizen’ in the Apple OSX equipment that I use. There are many editing platforms that natively output PDF using the facilities provided by the Apple operating system.

I do not however prefer Apple software to produce PDF. Instead, I use LaTeX (actually the LuaLaTeX engine) to produce PDF. This gives me a more consistent output, typographically superior to any of the WYSIWYG editors on OS X that produce Apple-flavoured PDF. It also allows me to use a low-level library (LaTeX macro) for embedding audio files in the PDF in such a way that they will play automatically, requiring no user configuration or intervention.

As an experiment I have embedded an extract from my earliest recording of Canto I of Don Juan (the first 36 verses) into an annotated text that I created sometime in 2010-11. Here is a link to the audio-PDF file. I have not optimised the images or the audio in this file so it’s 19 MB in size (a 2-3 minute download if you’re on a consumer-level DSL link to the Internet).

Please note that you must view this file in the free Adobe Acrobat reader (or in Acrobat Pro) for the audio to play. (It relies, internally, on Adobe javascript extensions to the PDF file format.). Also, you may have to download a free Adobe Flash Player plug-in if you do not already have such a thing on your computer. This file will display on some iOS devices (iPad etc) but only one or two iOS apps that display PDF will allow access to the audio (PDF Expert from Readdle, for example) ; and then, only as an attachment, not embedded.

Please let me know whether this is a successful experiment in your opinion. I’d be grateful if you’d give me some feedback – even if only thumbs-up or down – on this format.

Audio options

Still, I know that some of my listeners are not at all interested in reading the poem, much less notes on the poem. For them, the audio relieves them of the need to read it to themselves. They might like simply to listen, possibly to enjoy their imagined scenes. Or perhaps they like to have the distraction of listening while they do other, less imaginative, things like washing the dishes or commuting to work.

I am still thinking about how best to serve them.

Annotated Canto III of Don Juan

Here’s a download for Byron fans. An illustrated, annotated Canto III of Don Juan.

This project went into the freezer for a couple of years after the publication of the audio-book of Canto One. Alas, there were only a few sales. The iBook has been free for download from the iBook Store for the past couple of years and, still, there are only a very small number of downloads.

The Librivox recordings I made of several Cantos of Don Juan (here, here, and here) have been downloaded tens of thousands of times. But there seems to be almost zero demand for a read-aloud book of the same material, or I have failed to connect with the audience; or both.

I have, however, continued the project in other ways from time to time. I’ve recorded the audio for Cantos II and III that have not been posted to Librivox (I don’t like their insistence on ‘branding’ my work for themselves). Those recordings may appear here in due course: or I may wait until I have some more Cantos ready and release them as a group.

I have also continued to work on an approach to annotation whose motive is to help 21st century readers “get” some of the references — literary, autobiographical — that made the satire so amusing for sophisticated 19th century readers. Don Juan is not a literary puzzle like, for example, Joyce’s Ulysses. But it is a much denser composition than Byron’s apparently frivolous tone and loose structure make it appear, on the surface.

Here is the annotated version of Canto III. I hope you like it. Please contact me (there’s an email link in the PDF file) and let me know what you think.

Don-Juan Canto III Annotated

By the way: the image is a half-imaginary portrait of one of Byron’s would-be (de facto? We’ll never know!) lovers: the saturnine Ali Pasha of Tepelenë, a brigand, sadist, pederast and Ottoman tyrant of Albania and Western Greece. For more about his connection to Bryon, and role in Don Juan, please read the Annotated Canto III.

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.