Textbook Recording Studio

…for a living! This is Columbia, and, you name it—we probably have it. Join our Chief Mellifluousness Expert Nico Esguerra as he explores the annals of American education by way of a student paid to read textbooks. Know someone with concealed and intriguing skills? Tell us at tips@bwog.com

Most of us look forward to summer vacation as a time to not read textbooks, and in all likelihood, not get paid for whatever we’re doing instead. Cynthia Harris, CC ’13, finds herself in exactly the opposite situation. Cynthia gets paid to read textbooks, but, unlike graduate students, she reads them aloud for audio recordings (and happily).

Cynthia was at a dinner party with her parents when she was discovered. “I don’t know if I said something interesting or if I said something in an interesting voice but this guy came up to me and said that my voice was nice,” she says. “Usually that’d be something kind of creepy, right?” Fortunately, he harbored no sinister intentions. The man, now her boss, owns a small recording studio near her home in Chicago. There, Cynthia reads introductions, short stories, and once, she says, “I got to read a table of contents. That was…thrilling.”

Her work ends up on websites, so she has to record all the boring details. These are heard when selecting individual sections or headings on the page, and also include such riveting material as the copyright acknowledgements. The recordings she makes are shipped off to bigger companies like Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, whose projects are often too big for any one studio. These in the end are compiled into what we hear later—or often, to be frank, don’t hear. And neither does Cynthia. “I’ve never heard my recordings,” she claims.

Reading literature textbooks has taught her more “about the state of American education when it comes to literature more than about literature,” she says. “Textbooks or portions of them are just so poorly written.” For example, when reading what she described as a sort of Reader’s Digest version of Oliver Twist, she says, “You’re not even reading Oliver Twist, you’re reading Oliver Twist in eight pages. I mean, Nancy is supposed to die. And she doesn’t. Nancy is a young prostitute. She’s not a motherly figure. I mean, she is. But she’s also a prostitute who dies. So there’s a lot of stuff that gets sort of censored.”

Censorship results partially from the influence of Texas on the textbook market. Texas, recently in the spotlight for its curricular controversy, has major clout in the textbook market because it buys in bulk for its public schools. The state’s conservative politics sometimes dictate portrayals of certain characters—like in the case of Nancy’s prostitution—or even the sound of the textbook reader’s voice. “There were only whispers about this [in the office], but one of the projects that I got, there was the possibility that the reason that my voice was picked over a couple of other readers that we had was because it sounded like a white voice,” she says.

On a smaller scale, textbook content can impact the jobs of audiobook readers. “One expectation I have is that ‘Oh, subject and verb will agree.’ But when you notice that they don’t, you want them to anyways. So I would read in the corrections.” Textbook companies require that the text be read as written, even if the English is improper. Because every mistake had to be rerecorded, Cynthia ended up taking too long on one project and was dropped from the project by the textbook company.

At first you don’t really notice it, but after a while (an interview’s length) you can’t help but feel that her voice is… mellifluous. It’s soft, it’s smooth, and it’s undeniably easy to listen to. However, Cynthia is just as uncomfortable as the next person when reading aloud in class, and does not get picked on to read excerpts particularly often. Ironically, she is most comfortable reading in studio, when there are likely to be many more listeners than in her Contemporary Civilization class. “You’re in this dark closed space alone, and so any anxiety that you had when you first started reading just goes away… It’s sort of like reading aloud when there’s absolutely no pressure on you. I mean, obviously not, because you’re getting paid for it and you’re expected to do it well, but you just feel like you’re alone.”

When asked about her future in reading for audiobooks, Cynthia at first gave a solid no. But after she talked more about the big shot readers, such as Wanda McCaddon, who has won numerous Golden Voice awards under the pseudonym Nadia May, or Jim Dale, who reads the Harry Potter books, she admitted, “I’m actually hoping to break into the actual audiobook market.” Even if wasn’t fiction, she says she’d like to read whole unabridged books instead of the piecemeal recordings she does currently. For now, though, you can see her around campus, reading textbooks just like the rest of us: silently, sadly, and in preparation for finals.