Craft & Culture Professor Wu's Rulebook

Listen for free: great literary audio recordings

Listen to rare audio recordings of literary greats like Sylvia Plath, J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Bukowski right here, for free.

There is something special about being in the same room as an excellent author reading their work aloud. On the right night, it can be electrifying – the sort of thing that sends shivers down your spine.

And, while there are still plenty of great book reading events you can attend – how good must it have been to be able to listen to some of the greatest authors, who are sadly no longer with us, read their own work?

Well, thanks both to old time audio recording equipment and modern digitalisation tools and the internet, we can now get some sort of idea of what this was like. While the recordings available below might never quite capture the grace of Plath in person, or the slight hint of whisky of Bukowski’s breath, they hint at what it might have been like to hear them read their stories while they were alive – and bring us closer to these literary greats.

Sylvia Plath

“Nobody brought a house to life the way she did,” wrote Dan Chiasson in a New Yorker piece commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s death. To get a sense of what it must have been like to be in the same room as Plath, listen to these recordings of the poet reading her own poetry. Here, you can listen to Plath read fifteen poems from Ariel, her New England Brahmin vowels inflecting every line, drawing out internal rhymes and assonance, then clipping at caesuras like a well-bred horse’s trotting hooves.

Raymond Carver

Described by the New York Times Book Review as “surely the most influential writer of American short stories in the second half of the 20th Century”, Raymond Carver is perhaps best known for his celebrated short story – and short story collection – What we talk about when we talk about love.

It’s incredible therefore to have stumbled upon this audio recording of Carver reading his most famous story. In fact – as far as we here at Nothing in the Rulebook are aware – this is the only known recording of Carver reading his signature story, taped in a Palo Alto hotel room in 1983.

You can listen to the story here:

James Baldwin

Speaking at New York City’s Community Church in 1962, the literary legend James Baldwin gave a stunning lecture on the real meaning of words (always a tricky subject) and the artist’s ongoing struggle for integrity.

David Foster Wallace

By now, David Foster Wallace has acquired a quasi-mythical status among followers of both literature and pop-culture. With his 2005 speech to students at Kenyon College, This is Water, having gone viral, and a plethora of articles and blogs written about him, it seems we just can’t get enough of a man we have elevated from tortured literary genius admired by an intense cult following into a huge presence in our cultural and public consciousness – a man seen by some as a sort of modern literary saint; a professor of sustaining wisdom who is there to shine a light to guide our way forward, and also who can help us make sense of a world, which so often seems senseless.

There are many great recordings of Wallace reading his work – Open Culture has popped a few of them down already, but our personal favourite is the author reading his eviscerating short story Incarnations of burned children – a stunning example of writing that all prospective writers would do well to study, and to hear it read aloud by the man himself is something else entirely.

Flannery O’Connor

O’Connor makes the reading lists of American literature students worldwide, and rightly so – yet audio recordings of her work remain in rare supply (partly because of her reclusive nature, and the fact that she died at the age of just 39 from lupus).

In April of 1959, however, five years before her death, O’Connor ventured away from her secluded family farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, to give a reading at Vanderbilt University. She read one of her most famous and unsettling stories, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” The audio, accessible below, is one of two known recordings of the author reading that story. (The other, from a 1957 appearance at Notre Dame University, can be heard here.)

J. R. R. Tolkien

Were you inspired by Peter Jackson’s epic, mind-blowing Lord of the Rings trilogy? And were you left saddened by Jackson’s less mind-blowing reimagining of the Hobbit? Perhaps then, it’s a good time to get back to basics, by returning to the words – and the voice – of the literary author himself.

So, without further ado, go on and listen to the audio below of Tolkien himself reading from Chapter IV of The Two Towers

Charles Bukowski

The voice of this outspoken and ragged-edged writer rings clear in the recording here, as Bukowski reads The Secret of my Endurance. While he didn’t live long enough to record his great works like Post Office, this at least gives us a sense of what it must have been like to be in the same room as Buk as he read his work aloud.

Compliment this recording with a letter from Bukowski that will make you want to quit your job and become a writer.

T.S. Eliot

A master of high modernism and scourge to fresher literature students every year, T.S. Eliot packed his most famous works – The Wasteland and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock – with so much allegory and metaphor that reading it on a page is quite the intense experience. Yet listening to the poet read his work in his own voice adds another level of intrigue to the poems, as their words wash over you and you are transported to another, poetic landscape.

If you liked these recordings, you might also want to check out John Malkovich reading Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Breakfast of Champions’.

Have you found an audio recording of a literary genius that we should include in our list? Let us know in the comments below!

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