Who Narrates Audio Books?

Mil Nicholson

A few months ago I wanted to listen to Charles Dickens’ novel The Old Curiosity Shop.  I went to Librovox, the website where volunteer-produced recordings of books in the public domain are available for free, and found two complete recordings of the novel.  I sampled both and was particularly impressed by the one narrated by a woman named Mil Nicholson.  Her reading of the novel was as good as any you could buy from Audible or elsewhere.

But who in the world is Mil Nicholson, and why did this very talented woman spend so many hours producing a free recording of a 600 page novel?  It turns out that she is a British actress who loves Dickens’ novels.  In fact, her goal is to record all of Dickens’ novels for Librivox – and she’s well on her way.  She records them, and her husband helps her edit the works for upload to the Librivox website.  According to a Wired article that tells the story of the people behind the making of audio books, it takes Nicholson about six months to record one book with about five hours of reading being converted to a single hour of completed narration.

Nicholson, and a few other Librivox readers, have been hired to read professionally.  Some well-known professional actors have also been hired to narrate audio books because they have name recognition, and because they have great voices.  They include John Malkovich, Kate Winslet, Samuel L. Jackson, and Anne Hathaway.  I recently listened to a recording of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman read by Reese Witherspoon (who was born in New Orleans and raised in Tennessee), and I thought she was brilliant as the voice of the adult Scout Finch.

Order of the Phoenix

I was very surprised to find that a British actor named Jim Dale narrated all seven of the Harry Potter novels for American audiences.  Why was I surprised? Because that same Jim Dale played the part of P. T. Barnum in the 1980 Broadway musical Barnum.  I have played selections from the original Broadway cast recording of that musical many times during my years on public radio, but I had no idea that Dale was British.  He is obviously very gifted.  In fact, he created 134 individual voices for characters in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (a record noted in the Guinness  World Records).

Listen to “There is a Sucker Born Every Minute,” and see if you can detect a British accent. You can also hear a short AudioFile interview with Dale here.  In the interview you hear some of the voices he created for Peter and the Sword of Mercy, book 4 in the Peter and the Starcatchers series.  The books, written by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, tell the backstories of many of the characters that appear in J. M. Barrie’s book Peter and Wendy.

I know that some of you like the feel and smell of a real book, and don’t feel satisfied when you simply listen to a book, but let me close with a quote from the excellent Wired article that I referenced above:

 The human voice and performance are central to Western literature. Homer’s epics were recited aloud, though we don’t really know what form those performances took. Shakespeare, as many will tell you, is meant to be heard, declaimed, not read silently. And Dickens, considered by many to be the greatest English novelist, regularly read from his work at popular public events. (His marked-up texts used for performances—with extraneous details marked-out—can be seen at the Dickens House Museum in London.)

Humans have tended throughout history to think that there’s something sacred in the breath, the spoken word, the charged air, as it relates to literary inspiration. The Muses are said to breathe into the ear of the poet. God breathes life into matter in the Bible.

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