In a small, windowless room inside a huge, nondescript office building a few miles from Lake Michigan, I recorded the audio for my forthcoming book The Price of Prosperity: Why Rich Nations Fail and How to Renew Them. Listen to a sneak preview here. What does it take to read aloud a 330 page book? Twelve mugs of decaf peppermint tea, 6 cups of caffeinated cappuccino, three bowls of steaming minestrone soup, and a willingness to try out different accents and dialects. Though the book focuses on political economy and history, I also discuss the cultural ideas that underpin countries. And so in the course of the reading, I quote from Shakespeare, Plutarch, Neil Simon, Woody Allen, and Giacomo Puccini, for example.
Until my director, a bright and talented man named Ken Schmidt, handed me a detailed spreadsheet, I didn’t realize that my book included 350 foreign names and phrases. Though I knew the Japanese term bummei kaika (civilization and enlightenment), I had never pronounced the phrase in front of a microphone. In quoting the words “l’aspetto” (“I will wait for him”) from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly I wanted to place the accent on the second syllable. Ken insisted on the first. We agreed on a referee: Maria Callas. A YouTube video of Callas came down on Ken’s side. One week later I attended the San Diego Opera’s production of Madama Butterfly and wanted to shout at the brilliant soprano Lonia Moore, “Put the accent on the l’a!”
I recently heard the story of Johnny Depp recording Keith Richard’s memoir, Life. Johnny, a friend of Richards, dutifully showed up at the studio and began reading. Then he realized that this was hard work – stuck in a glass booth where no one cared about your high cheekbones and lustrous hair. Moreover, Johnny was reading about orgies of weed, coke, and smack. After five chapters, Johnny couldn’t take it anymore and stumbled out of the studio hollowed-eyed, like Jack Sparrow. He never showed up again. That’s why listeners hear a stark change in voice starting at chapters 6, when musician Joe Hurley takes over the microphone.
When you listen to The Price of Prosperity, you will hear just one voice, sometimes needing a cup of tea, but always enthusiastic to share what I’ve learned about the fate of wealthy nations.