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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Imagine hearing the voice of the young William Shakespeare reading his own writing. Plenty of actors perform him but to hear the author reading aloud, well, we can't take you back that far. But in the early 1960s, when recorded readings by authors were rare, a young couple in Boston decided to be literary audio pioneers.

NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg says the idea was hatched in 1962.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Lynne Sharon Schwartz was working on a magazine. Her husband, Harry, was at the Boston Redevelopment Authority. They were avid readers.

LYNN SHARON SCHWARTZ: And we were just hanging out with friends talking about the major or the young up-and-coming writers of their day. We were aware of Caedmon, which had brought out the Dylan Thomas record of a "Child's Christmas in Wales." And we thought: We could do something like that.

STAMBERG: A few of the big guys - T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden - were out on LPs. But what about the up-and-comers: Philip Roth, John Updike? Plus, some more established authors: Bernard Malamud, William Styron, James Baldwin. The idea was to put them on vinyl LPs, eight minutes per side, sell the records for a $1.95 apiece, and pay each writer $150 - pretty good money in the early '60s.

The Schwarzes heard that Baldwin was coming to speak at MIT.

HARRY SCHWARTZ: So we all went to his talk. And afterwards, we approached him and said, would you like to do a reading? And he said: Eh, sounds like a good idea.

STAMBERG: Baldwin read from "Giovanni's Room," his second novel, published in 1956. It's an early book about homosexuality, then a forbidden subject.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES BALDWIN: (Reading) This is the lie that I told to Giovanni but never succeeded in making him believe - that I had never slept with a boy before. I had. I had decided that I never would again.

STAMBERG: Lynne Sharon Schwartz, herself a respected novelist today - her new book is "Two Part Inventions" - directed the reading. Then, with razor blades and sticky tape, they edited the various takes down into 16 good minutes. James Baldwin helped the Schwartzes set their recording dream in motion.

HARRY SCHWARTZ: He said: Oh, I'll call my friend Bill Styron - maybe he wants to do this. And then Styron led us to James Jones, and they led us to Philip Roth.

STAMBERG: Obviously an up-and-comer. By 1962, Philip Roth had made a splash with "Goodbye Columbus," a short story collection. Lynne and Harry Schwartz recorded him, age 29, reading from a new novel, "Letting Go." They took their van and engineer to Roth's house in Princeton.

LYNN SHARON SCHWARTZ: He was this warm, jovial, welcoming young person. And we sat around the fire and had a drink - or coffee, I don't remember. And then, of course, when he started to read the passage and he burst out with this comic rendition, we had no idea he had this in him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PHILIP ROTH: (Reading) How come you're home? I thought something was up. Oh, I cut my hand. They gave me the afternoon off. Woo, what a cut, said Levy, advancing. You got a bandage like a mummy. I'm all right. He sat up, shaking the grogginess out of his head. The doctor had given him some numbing drug. I'll be fine. Want me to make you a little Lipton's tea? No, thanks. Aye, don't cost extra to boil water.

STAMBERG: All the Roth elements are there: humor, Jewish-American life, zest. In seven years he would publish "Portnoy's Complaint," which made him a star and led to a lifetime of books, awards, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award - and fame. Just for fun, and to hear the difference, I dug into the NPR archives and found a recording of Philip Roth 50 years later, in March 2013.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Happy birthday, Mr. Roth.

ROTH: (Laughing) Thank you very much.

STAMBERG: He had just turned 80 and announced he was giving up writing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ROTH: I guess it's about three years ago that I finished a book called "Nemesis." I didn't know it would be my last book. But I was months trying to start something new, and I wasn't having any success. And then it occurred to me, I didn't have to do this anymore. (Laughing)

STAMBERG: Writing was just becoming too hard, Philip Roth told Scott Simon, and said he didn't know any writer to whom it comes easily - except maybe John Updike.

So, here's John Updike. Lynne Sharon Schwarz says he was slightly known when they recorded him, age 30, reading an excerpt of "Lifeguard," from his short story collection "Pigeon Feathers."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN UPDIKE: (Reading) Beyond doubt I am a splendid fellow. In the autumn, winter and spring, I execute the duties of a student of divinity. In the summer, I disguise myself and my skin and become a lifeguard.

STAMBERG: Hesitant, careful, a bit precious at 30. Now from the NPR archives, here's 76-year-old John Updike, asked about which Americans - himself, for instance - might be considered for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UPDIKE: I can think of a number of American writers who would not disgrace the prize. Sure, I think Don Delillo and Philip Roth. But my own work, as I judge it, is too - (Laughing) - provincial, too American, too concerned with bringing out the intricacy and interest of ordinary lives. It doesn't have quite the bells and whistles that the Nobel Committee is looking for.

LYNN SHARON SCHWARTZ: What do you think, Harry? (Laughing)

HARRY SCHWARTZ: Well, I was struck by his awareness of his own position; his place in the literary world.

STAMBERG: And the confidence in Updike's voice, after so many books, and stories, and reviews and Pulitzer Prizes.

Clearly a labor of love when Lynne and Harry Schwarz released their recordings in 1963. They're re-issued now on CDs and audio files by Calliope. They believe these archival tapes of young writers, who would become 20th century literary lions, are even more valuable now.

LYNN SHARON SCHWARTZ: Some of these works are available, read by actors. But it's not quite the same thing when you hear an author read his own. Then you really understand more about what it means to him, what he intended. These are historical documents - you know, their voices - they're part of the cultural heritage.

STAMBERG: And the voice, the voice putting you in the presence of beginnings, while knowing full well what the glorious future will be for these writers.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene.

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