I want to tell you how much I love the website LibriVox.org, but first I have to make clear that this isn’t a normal feeling for me. That’s because I’m a tech crab. I admit that I instinctively push back against the conventional notion, relentlessly advanced by profit-minded tech companies and idealistic techno-utopians alike, that the Internet and related cool gadgets are making life more awesome in every way every day.
The premise I find hardest to swallow is that technology creates community. We hear a lot about how instantaneous worldwide mobile communication, long dreamed of and finally realized, brings people together. But most of the screen zombies I see lurching through the city are using their wondrous devices not to connect to anyone but to distract themselves so that they don’t have to engage fellow humans or even spend time in company with their own thoughts.
“Misunderstood,” the iPhone ad about a wan boy who appears to be using his phone to cut himself off from his family at Christmas but is secretly making a movie with it that expresses his loving sense of belonging, won an Emmy this year. It moved some people to tears, apparently. What it celebrates, though, is a child using a screen to escape the experience of familial community and attempting to fill the resultant void with video “content.”
So in my crabbiness I resist the idea that digital technology necessarily connects people to each other, and yet I love LibriVox, a website on which you can find or make free recordings of books in the public domain. And what I most appreciate about it is the way it builds a sense of community where I hadn’t realized one could be found.
A collective not-for-profit, ad-free enterprise, LibriVox exists because human beings derive deep satisfaction from reading to and being read to by others. Since nobody can make money from LibriVox, its volunteers are free to record and share not only beloved classics but also obscure works for which there’s no market.
As opposed to the professionally produced audiobooks sold on commercial sites, readings on LibriVox are often uneven, which is part of their charm. Several volunteers might collaborate on a longer work, so that a woman with a lilting Italian accent will read a couple of chapters of an Edith Wharton novel and then be succeeded by a man who sounds like he stopped for a beer in Erie last week and just woke up in Buffalo. Reading may be the quintessential solitary activity, but these collaboratively read books become a kind of aural community, crowded with not only authors’ and characters’ voices but also those of readers. Here, oddly, within a book, is a technologically enabled, meaningful connection to other people of the sort that gadget makers’ ads are always unconvincingly promising to provide.
And the meta-drama of contrasts among those readers adds another layer to your experience of the book. One guy who reads part of a translation of Julius Caesar’s “Commentaries on the Gallic Wars” available on LibriVox simply can’t pronounce the name Vercingetorix. He seizes up in a slightly different way each time that important Gaul crops up in the text, imparting fresh suspense to an account of battles fought two millennia in the past.
But many of the readers are good, and occasionally you encounter a virtuoso. A fellow named Jason Mills, for instance, offers a solo rendition of E. R. Eddison’s great fantasy novel “The Worm Ouroboros” that’s so pitch-perfectly attuned to the book’s ornate prose — at once elegant and eccentric, disciplined and overripe — that now I can’t reread this old favorite without hearing Mills’s voice.
Part of the pleasure of being read to is that you can do something useful with your body at the same time. Audiobooks are an individualistic update of the traditional arrangement in which cigar factory workers pitched in to pay a reader to regale them with stories while they rolled tobacco all day. LibriVox, providing not only good things to listen to but also good company while you’re washing dishes, shoveling snow, or working out, employs 21st century technology to scratch old human itches.
Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.’’