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TECHNOPOLIS

Bringing You Books on Podcast

Amateur readers are working together to record novels and other texts to be downloaded free from the Internet.

January 15, 2006|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

Kara Shallenberg records audio books -- most recently the Frances Hodgson Burnett classic "A Little Princess" -- that can be downloaded from the Internet.

A stay-at-home mom in Oceanside, she is not a professional reader, let alone one of the highly regarded actors such as Jim Dale, Ruby Dee and Michael York who have infused audio books with compelling, nuanced performances.

But Shallenberg's recordings are free, unlike the professionally done audio books, which can cost $20 to $50 to download.

Shallenberg is one of a rapidly growing number of volunteers who are making recordings of public-domain books that can be copied from the Internet at no cost.

Free books read by amateurs are among the latest uses of podcasting, whereby recordings are easily made on computers and sent out over the Internet for downloading to other computers and portable players.

The most prominent site for the free book downloads, www.librivox.org, debuted in August. LibriVox has 15 unabridged novels available, including Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island," Fyodor Dostoyevsky's "Notes From the Underground," Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," P.G. Wodehouse's "Smith in the City" and Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein."

Also available are readings of short stories, poems and documents such as the U.S. Constitution. The all-volunteer site also lists more than 100 works in progress.

LibriVox is the brainchild of Hugh McGuire, an unpublished novelist in Montreal. He was listening to a commercial recording of D.H. Lawrence's novel "Lady Chatterley's Lover" when he came up with the idea of using the Internet's wide reach to record and distribute books.

Key to his plan was a way to get books recorded efficiently. As a former engineer, McGuire, 31, was familiar with the concept of freely circulated, open-source software that a number of people could work on simultaneously. "My idea was that a book could be divided so that a number of people around the world could work on it, each one recording a chapter," McGuire said.

The first project was "The Secret Agent," Joseph Conrad's 1907 tale of a spy who infiltrates an anarchist group in London. Although fairly short as novels go, it has more than 91,000 words. McGuire divided its 13 chapters among himself and 11 readers he met through literary and other websites.

"If it had been done by one reader it could take weeks," he said. "This way, it takes just days."

Word of LibriVox spread quickly -- the site now has about 200 active volunteer readers, many of whom also work as organizers to put books together. The readers, none of whom McGuire has met, live in North America, several European countries, Australia and Japan.

They record their assigned texts directly onto their computers using commonly available recording and editing software and then send them to an organizer, who uploads them in a package onto the site.

Some organizers take on the task themselves, recording an entire book as a solo project. It takes longer, but the result is a smoother product, without listeners having to adapt to new readers throughout a work. Shallenberg's "A Little Princess," which is also posted to her own kayray.org site, falls into that camp.

Users of the site can choose to download an entire book or just chapters. And for each selection there is a link to the text on Project Gutenberg, which has collected more than 17,000 books and other public-domain selections on its site, www.gutenberg.org. With printouts in hand, you or your kids can follow along if you like.

How good are the readings? Varied, to say the least. Some are quite good, even excellent. Alex Foster of Nottingham in Britain has such a sonorous voice and gives such vibrant, classy readings that it sounds as if he came right out of a BBC studio.

On the other end of the scale are readings that sound as if they come from your worst nightmare of community theater -- either monotone or way over the top.

Still, McGuire said all were welcome. "Early on, we decided we were not going to make any value judgments about a person's reading," he said. "We get them through the technical problems and that's it."

All the recordings I heard on the site could be understood, at least. And many of them, if amateurish, got by on the strength of the texts. You can get caught up in a story, even if the reader is not a member of SAG.

After all, if your were lucky enough to be read to as a kid, it probably was not by a pro. But did it keep you from asking for just one more chapter of "Treasure Island" before falling asleep?

Macworld Report

Products unveiled by Apple Computer Inc. at the annual Macworld fest in San Francisco last week will be reviewed here in coming weeks. But I did get a chance to briefly try out the two major new offerings -- a revised version of the iMac desktop computer and the new MacBook Pro laptop. Both are powered by Intel Corp. processors and are very, very fast.

The iMac, which went on sale immediately, is by all appearances exactly the same as the most recent rendition of the machine. But software on the new iMac ran much more quickly. This was especially noticeable with image-editing programs such as iPhoto.

The laptop, which will go on sale in February, is quite handsome. But there was one problem I hope gets fixed before final shipping -- heat. The models on display gave off a lot of it, enough to make human laps quite uncomfortable after a short time. Apple said the models on view at Macworld were preproduction units and that refinements were being made.

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David Colker can be reached by e-mail at technopolis@latimes.com.

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