'Catcher' caught: Audiobook of Salinger novel made for library service for the blind
WASHINGTON - Push the play button and hear the famous teenager's lament. It is recited in a sly, middle-aged twang, like an adult reading in a grade school classroom, one about to be told that the grown-up world is a nest of phonies.
"I mean I've left schools and places I didn't even know I was leaving them," says the narrator. "I hate that. I don't care if it's a sad good-by or a bad good-by, but when I leave a place I like to know I'm leaving it. If you don't, you feel even worse."
The narrator is Holden Caulfield of "The Catcher in the Rye," but the voice — a light, steady baritone — belongs to Ray Hagen. He is a longtime reader for the Library of Congress' National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, which provides books on tape ("talking books") and in Braille. This recording, book number RC 47480 in the library's catalogue, is the closest anyone will likely come to an official audiobook edition of J.D. Salinger's classic novel.
The author, who died in January at age 91, never granted audio rights and was known for stopping those who used his material without permission. But under copyright law, the service is allowed to record any book, assuming no production is made available to the general public. Tapes from the program are free and can only be played on machines provided by the library that work at a different speed than standard releases.
Phyllis Westberg, Salinger's longtime literary agent, confirmed that no commercial audio version of "Catcher" exists, but otherwise declined comment.
Like other works for the blind, the library edition of "Catcher" includes not just the full text, but the title and copyright pages and other materials. An introduction warns of strong language, describes Holden as "an ancient child of 16" and cites his "perfectly articulated cry of mixed pain and pleasure."
Hagen, 74, recorded a version in the late 1970s and a second one in 1999 — the version currently in circulation — after the original master deteriorated. During a recent interview at the library service's recording studio, Hagen noted he was 63 when he rerecorded "Catcher." He acknowledged he might have been "long in the tooth" for Holden, but said that the key was "attitude."
"It's a first person book by a teenager, a disaffected teenager," says Hagen, animated and reflective with wavy, brushed back hair; jeans; a denim vest and a brown shirt with buttons in different colours. "Well, I was a disaffected teenager and I hadn't forgotten anything about life at that age, so I told the story truthfully, the way you would act a part in a play."
The National Library Service includes numerous works otherwise unavailable on tape, from Thomas Pynchon's "V." and "Gravity's Rainbow" to "The Essays of E.B. White" and Norman Mailer's "The Armies of the Night." Prominent collections of poetry, an art form made for being read out loud, can only be heard through the library's program, including the collected poems of Richard Wilbur, W.S. Merwin's "Opening the Hand" and Richard Hass' Pulitzer Prize winning "Time and Materials."
"The reason there isn't an official audiobook for 'Time and Materials' is because nobody ever asked me to do one," Hass says. "There's actually a rich shared underground among poets of readings and lectures and CDS and tapes people send to each other. Somebody just sent me a CD of (poet) James Wright's last reading. Somebody else sent me a CD of Christopher Ricks reading obscure English poets on the BBC."
"To be blunt, those books just don't sell in audio," says Ana Maria Allessi, vice-president and publisher of HarperMedia, which releases audiobooks for HarperCollins, Hass' publisher. "A couple of years ago we did this beautiful package of recordings of poems by Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson and several others and nothing happened. It was so frustrating. You have these giants of American poetry and they didn't sell. So it's going to be very hard to sell contemporary poets."
The National Library Service, also known as the NLS, was established in 1931 by the Pratt Smoot Act, which authorized $100,000 for the Library of Congress to offer "books for the use of the adult blind residents of the United States." The program has expanded over the decades, with children's recordings added in the 1950s and music scores in the early 1960s. In 1966, eligibility was broadened to include "individuals with other physical impairments that prevent the reading of regular print."
The NLS was briefly controversial in the 1980s when Rep. Chalmers Wylie, R-Ohio, objected to a Braille edition of Playboy magazine and led an effort to cut funding. A federal judge later ruled that the Playboy release was protected by the First Amendment.
The library's mission ("That All May Read") is unchanged, but the means have been revolutionized. Recordings at first were made on large reels for vinyl pressing that allowed for no editing, so that a single mistake meant a book had to be restarted from scratch. Vinyl was replaced by cassette tapes, then digital technology.
Around 2,000 books, magazines and other materials are recorded annually and the budget for the NLS has been rising by more than 10 per cent under both Republican and Democratic administrations and Congresses, in part to pay for the digital transition. Just over $70 million was allocated for the fiscal year 2010.
Hagen, a native of New York City, worked for years as a singer, stage performer, writer and film journalist before joining the library in 1973. He retired in 2001, but still comes in twice a week on a freelance basis. He remembers a very different workplace and work ethic when he began. There were no written, unified standards for paid contractors, who were doing most of the recordings. The Washington office, which now has dictionaries of languages from Greek to Catalan, had just a single reference work for consultation on pronunciation. Even famous names were occasionally botched.
"Someone came down to me one day and handed me one of those little green boxes with the cassettes," Hagen says. "He's half-laughing, half in horror and he says, 'This got passed through. Listen to the opening.'"
Hagen heard an elderly woman introduce a celebrated novel, "Other Voices, Other Rooms," and pronounce the last name of author Truman Capote as "Ca-POAT."
"We have been fanatics about standards ever since the 1970s," says Bill West, the audio production specialist at the library until his retirement last summer. "I can't tell you how many times I was accused of being a slave driver. I plead guilty to it."
The criteria for taping a book are commercial and critical. Bestsellers and critical successes are almost automatically recorded, while some works are taped on request from a customer. Recordings take place around the country, but the home office is in this plain brick building north of downtown Washington, where three basement level studios are used and a sign reads: "This is no dress rehearsal. We are professionals, and this is the big time." On the walls are covers of books Hagen has recorded, including Stephen King's "Night Shift" and Kurt Vonnegut's "Slapstick."
During a recent afternoon, Hagen sat in a windowless studio and read from Jim DeFelice's "Leopards Kill," an espionage thriller set in Afghanistan. It was a demanding, sometimes tiring process — sentences repeated when a single word is flubbed; a discussion over how to pronounce a key character's name, Guitierrez (GOO'-tee-air-ez). Around 25 pages were covered over a period of an hour and a half.
"That takes a lot out of you," he says afterward, sipping from a large plastic bottle of iced tea.
"People think you can just walk in and in one hour record one hour's worth of fully usable material," West says. "That just doesn't happen."
Some projects are a pleasure, such as "Catcher" ("That's regular human speech. It's not just fancy writing"), the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer and the complete scripts of the British television comedy "Fawlty Towers." Others are work. Hagen was let down by the memoirs of Fred Astaire ("I idolize Fred Astaire, but he sure wasn't a writer"), and dismayed by Obama campaign manager David Plouffe's "The Audacity to Win" ("Editors seem to have vanished from the book world"). He found Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea" a bore — "stilted and self-important."
"I just wasn't nuts about it," he says.
Hagen has read first person accounts by Astaire and by James Cagney, but avoids imitating the authors of his books. Several years ago, he took on "The Beatles Anthology," an oral history for which Hagen ended up reading the words of all four band members. You won't hear him affect a British accent, but he does turn slightly nasal when speaking as John Lennon, whimsical as Paul McCartney, deadpan as George Harrison and droll as Ringo Starr.
"I'm not (impressionist) Rich Little," Hagen says. "It's just attitude. What is this person's attitude while they're talking?"
Projects can take months or more. Hagen read all of Tony Kushner's epic play "Angels in America," which on stage lasts more than six hours and is usually performed on two separate days in two parts. His greatest task was "On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio," an 800-page reference book that compiled more than 1,500 programs and on cassette filled more than 60 sides.
"It took me a year to finish it," Hagen says, "and then we had champagne."