I Can’t Hear You
Note: Back in October 2019 — you know, those sweet days of Before Time — I did something that I of course took for granted. I stumbled upon an interesting tidbit of information, I got in my car, and I explored the said tidbit in person. Without hand sanitizers, social distancing, or masks. Now that the world has begun to open back up (fingers crossed, knock on wood, that it keeps on opening), here’s to hoping we’ll all be able to do something like this again without a second thought in the very near future — and beyond.
What got me into audiobooks was Chris Crutcher’s Athletic Shorts, back in the winter of 1999. I can’t even remember why I borrowed it from my local library — perhaps the playful title, because on the three cassettes were six short stories about high school athletes. A decade removed from the gym period, I wasn’t the prototypical audience for young adult tales of swimmers and wrestlers, and yet I was hooked after the first sentence:
Sometimes, when I stand back and take a good look, I think my parents are ambassadors from hell.
It was an excellent introduction made twice amazing by the narrator Frank Muller: an angsty, angry teen who’s had it up to here. He transformed the first person voice into a first rate monologue, channeling a genuine character from the source material.
I hadn’t realized my good fortune until years later, when a bit of Googling revealed Muller to be the best of the best. A true test of his talent was George Orwell’s 1984, a book I dreaded reading in my junior year English class. I couldn’t believe it was the same novel. When Muller screams Winston’s desperate plea, “Do it to Julia!” his anguish became my anguish.
As a novelist who’s been playing the writing game for a couple of decades, I know my capabilities, my limitations. I am not a lyrical author in the mold of Jamaica Kincaid or Stuart Dybek, nor am I in possession of metaphorical chops like Jonathan Franzen or Vladimir Nabokov. I craft conversational, no-nonsense prose, which is why I could really use a fine narrator to liven things up a bit — which is why it’s been a kind of a heartbreak that none of my three novels has received the treatment of a professional recording.
But it turns out I’m wrong. In a span of 13 hours and 48 minutes, an actress lent her trained voice to an unabridged recording of my second novel, Love Love, but in an ironic twist of fate, I am unable to listen to it.
While researching a subject for my latest novel, I was on the Library of Congress’s website, but because I was bored, I searched for myself instead. (No writer would be surprised at the number of stupid things writers do instead of writing.) I thought this would lead me to the catalog entry for my novels, but a quoted query of my full name instead revealed this:
Talking Book Topics November-December 2016 — Volume 82, Number 6
The webpage was super long, so I searched within the page and found this:
DB84405 13 hours 48 minutes
by Sung J. Woo
read by Carol Jacobanis
Former pro-tennis player Kevin learns of his adoption when he’s tested to be a kidney donor for his father. Devastated, he searches for his birth family. Both he and his sister Judy are dealing with the fallout of broken and burgeoning romances. Strong language and some explicit descriptions of sex. 2015.
I stared at this entry for a good minute, wondering if I’d somehow fallen into the Twilight Zone. That was definitely my name, my title, my plot summary. Once past the slack-jawed phase, I put on my metaphorical Sherlock Holmes hat and let my fingers do the Googling. Not only did narrator Carol Jacobanis have more than fifty actress credits on IMDB, but she read Nicole Krauss’s novel couple of years after mine. She was totally legit.
But nowhere else on the internet could I find a vestige of this supposed audiobook, certainly not on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. I emailed my publisher Soft Skull, who was also mystified and told me they’d run their own investigation, as they were unaware of this recording, too.
Meanwhile, I dug a little more and found this:
Published: Washington, D.C. National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, Library of Congress, 2016 (Benefit Media, recording studio)
Dewey No.: 813.6 AFI 23
Notes: Availability restricted to persons meeting the eligibility requirements of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, Library of Congress.
I received a subsequent reply from my publisher, who pointed out that some books on the Talking Book Topics list I sent over bore the designation of “commercial audiobook.” What he deduced was that there were some books that the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) licensed from existing audiobooks, but if one did not already exist, such as mine, then NLS would hire their own readers.
As much as I found this information to be interesting, I found it equally frustrating. There are hours upon hours of fine, entertaining literature just sitting on the Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) servers, but due to the nature of funding and copyright laws, these cannot be made available to the public at large. I was exasperated enough to do something I never do, write a letter to Washington. Turns out there’s an actual Librarian of Congress, Dr. Carla Hayden. In addition to making my case to free these spoken words from their contractual shackles, I offered her a slogan: Let Talking Books Talk to Everyone!
With my civic and advertising duties fully executed, the final objective remained: to hear Carol Jacobanis read my words. I enlisted the assistance of a local librarian, to see if she could wrangle a temporary account from BARD for “research purposes,” but no go. She did however find a contact at the Talking Book & Braille Center (TBBC) of the New Jersey State Library in Trenton, who was willing to show me how the program worked and make my book part of the demonstration. It was more than an hour away, but I couldn’t see another way to hear my book, so I jumped in the car and found myself in front of not so much a library but a warehouse. White and flat and boxy, the massive building looked almost communist in its stark plainness.
The outreach librarian showed me around the expansive campus, explaining the need for space due to Braille books taking up a lot of room; the e-book equivalent of Braille was not yet a viable solution due to cost and availability.
After walking by TBBC’s call center, which is how many of the patrons still borrowed their Talking Books, he brought me to his office to show me the BARD app, and of course, my book.
After Carol Jacobanis read the requisite copyright information, she announced the heading — “Part I: A Week in September” — and my heart was pounding. I was finally about to hear the first line of my second novel — on with it!
The best part about being a temp was what Judy Lee had decided to do an hour ago: leave for lunch and never come back.
She had a lovely voice and impeccable diction; I couldn’t have asked for a better narrator. But after hearing another few sentences, reality set in: for the next thirteen hours and change, she’d dutifully read every word. This was an audiobook like any other — there was nothing special about it, outside of the fact that it was mine. And the longer I listened to it here in the office, the more I felt embarrassment creeping in, especially in the presence of the librarian who’d taken time out of his busy workday to meet with me. I thanked him and was back on the road.
On the return drive, my thoughts turned to luck. How lucky that I’ve been able to have not only one book published but three so far in my life. How unlucky that the great Frank Muller suffered a motorcycle accident in 2001 and lost the ability to narrate, and yet how lucky we all are that over 200 of his recordings exist. And most of all, how lucky I am that someone can hear one of my books. That listener may be limited to the pool of the visually impaired, but that’s okay. As much as I’d like to see everyone gain access to my novel, no one deserves to see words come to life through the magic of narration more than these folks.
Thank you to Stephen Felle, Talking Book & Braille Center (TBBC)’s outreach librarian, for his kindness and generosity.