New England literary recordings

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(Host) When it comes to books, commentator Jules Older doesn’t just read. Sometimes he listens.

(Older) I talk a lot about reading books, but up until now I’ve never talked about the other way I take in literature. That’s right – audio books. Boy. It was a happy day when I discovered that! Suddenly, my monthly trip to Montreal shrunk by about half. By two-thirds if I had a good action novel on the tape deck.

Now, most talking books are produced by international conglomerates who own book companies, movie companies, tire companies companies. But I’ve found one notable exception. It’s an outfit whose headquarters isn’t a Manhattan skyscraper. It’s Northport, Maine, population 1,100. And instead of a bevy of bureaucrats, it’s owned and run by a single woman named Heather.

Heather Frederick is publisher and producer of Audio Bookshelf, and she puts out an unusual catalog of books on audio tape. Her company’s unusual because it’s both tiny and independent. The catalog is unusual because of two things: family focus (I’ll come back to that) and New England. Many of their spoken books are either written by New England authors or about New England life.

“Family focus” can be a mixed blessing. Sometimes it’s a euphemism for bland and timid. Not so, here. I’ve actually sobbed listening to Audio Bookshelf recordings, probably to the discomfort of other drivers afraid that, “This fool is going to sob his way into the front end of my car!”

Here’s some of what I’ve heard: The Mark Twain Sampler. No, not Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer; it’s a well-chosen taste of his lesser-known works, plus letters, reflections and diatribes.

A Day No Pigs Would Die. This is a tough, emotional, sometimes bloody tale of life on a poor Vermont farm in the early 20th century. Author Robert Newton Peck says it’s 92% autobiographical; I found it 100% engrossing.

A Separate Peace. This is the one that had me sobbing. It’s 1942, the country is at war, and two 16-year-old boys are best friends and occasional enemies in a rural New Hampshire private school. John Knowles really knows how to bring on the tears.

And, finally, the cleverly named tape, White on White. It’s Joel White reading from, and commenting on, the works of his father, E.B. White. This collection, too, avoids the best-known works – Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little and Elements of Style. Instead, it concentrates on poems, musings and letters. Here’s one of the letters; it’s to his editor:

“Dear Jack,
The next grammar book I bring out, I want to tell how to end a sentence with five prepositions. A father of a little boy goes upstairs after supper to read to his son. But he brings the wrong book. The boy says, ‘What did you bring that book that I don’t want to be read to out of…up for?'”

Visit Audio Bookshelf online.

This is Jules Older in Albany, Vermont, the Soul of the Kingdom.

Jules Older is the author of more than 20 books for children and adults, and is a passionate outdoors enthusiast.

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