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Oral literature no longer means a griot and a group of listeners encircling a bonfire; today’s storytelling forum is on wheels. Traffic-jam sitters and car trippers are turning off the radio to listen to audiocassettes of The Celestine Prophecy, “L” is for Lawless, or—if Bethesda’s Albert Hartley has his way—Paradise Lost. Hartley,who once recorded William Penn’s Some Fruits of Solitude for his Quaker meeting acquaintances, has now rendered John Milton’s classic tome unto tape.

Hartley’s recording odyssey began when he taped several books for a friend’s cross-country drive. This led to his interest in public-domain works like Milton’s and Penn’s. “I was trying to decide what to work on, and several people suggested Paradise Lost,” he says. “It’s a centerpiece of the canon that people feel they should read but don’t feel like expending too much effort on. It really is intimidating.” Hartley practiced enunciation by reading the newspaper or poetry to friends in the car (he claims they enjoyed it), then began his time-consuming project. “I started it three times,” he says. “The first time, I got halfway through it and realized I could get better sound quality by rearranging my equipment. It took months to do.” The final version, complete with flute backup by Liza Vick of the Washington Flute Consort, took about two months; all told, it fills eight tapes and lasts 12 hours. Hartley isn’t sure whether reading the work aloud enhances comprehension, but he does feel that “it’s easier to listen to something twice than to read something twice,” and that listeners always benefit from a second run-through.

Hartley has formed a company, Boundless Books—“It fills all my days,” he sighs—and plans many more classic-lit audiotapes. His next project, a collection of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories, will be ready by Thanksgiving. Meanwhile, Hartley eagerly awaits a day when his budget will be bigger and Boundless Books will have staff members besides himself. “I love doing the reading,” he says, “but when I can afford it, I’d like to have other people doing the reading. Or I would like to experiment with a full-cast reading of Prometheus Unbound.” Paradise Lost can be ordered from Boundless Books at (301) 530-4862 or albertus.net.