The First 'Literary' Audiobook Was Just Discovered

Some of my earliest memories involve listening to Disney Read-Alongs, with their signature slogan: "When you hear this sound — turn the page!" I've just learned that an audiobook from 1935 has been discovered in Canada, and now my whole concept of books-on-tape history has been thrown for a loop.

The book in question is Joseph Conrad's novella, Typhoon. Mike Dececco, a Canadian collector of vinyl records, knew the 4-LP set was a find, given its age, but he did not understand the significance of the 1935 audiobook until he read The Untold Story of the Talking Book: a microhistory by Queen Mary University of London professor Matthew Rubery.

Audiobooks have been around since the 1930s, when the U.K.'s Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) began to record them. As it turns out, Typhoon was among the first three full-length works to receive an audio recording, along with the Gospel of John and Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and the 4-LP set may be the only survivor of the original audiobooks. Until Dececco contacted Rubery, all three recordings were believed to have been lost to time. Typhoon also holds the distinction of being "the first 'literary' audiobook."

As for how the 1935 audiobook wound up across the pond, The Guardian reports that "it is believed [to] have been taken to Canada by a former armed forces member." Writers of historical fiction, there's your next writing prompt.

The discovery has energized book nerds and historians alike. Rubery calls it "a tremendous find for anyone interested in literature, sound recording or the cultural heritage of blind and partially sighted people." The RNIB's Mark McCree says the discovery holds a special significance for his organization: "Last year was our 80th anniversary, and to find one of the original collection recordings after all these years is reason to celebrate."

You can listen to the 1935 audiobook version of Typhoon online, courtesy of The Times.

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