One powerful voice

Volunteer narrator Marilyn Rea Beyer shares the secrets of bringing audio books to life during phone-in event for Perkins Library patrons

Marilyn wearing headphones and speaking into a microphone

Volunteer narrator Marilyn Rea Beyer has read aloud novels, biographies, short stories and collections of poetry for the Perkins Library's audio book collection. Photo Credit: Anna Miller.

June 11, 2015

Marilyn Rea Beyer has taken readers aboard a fishing boat in the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, atop the iconic Green Monster at Fenway Park and into the kitchen of famed abolitionist Julia Ward Howe, using nothing but her voice.

As a volunteer narrator for the Perkins Library, Beyer has read aloud novels, biographies, short stories and collections of poetry. Her recordings are made into audio books that are lent out to registered patrons across the country who are unable to access the printed page because of a visual impairment or other disability.  

Recently, Beyer was the featured speaker for Library Without Walls, a monthly phone-in book club run by the Perkins Library. As Library patrons listened, she described the early years of her career as a voiceover artist, which she spent volunteering for the Massachusetts Association for the Blind

“My claim to fame there was recording manuals for computer printers,” she said with a laugh. “Many years in a row I recorded the catalog of adaptive and assistive technology products. Back then, I was happy to do things like record the description of the talking watches, but I drew the line at the talking bathroom scale.”

Eventually, Beyer was assigned to record David McCullough’s 1992 biography of Harry S. Truman, which appealed to her love of history. 

“From that point on I was really smitten with the idea of reading books on tape,” she said.

Beyer’s love of the spoken word began in fourth grade, when she was asked to co-host and narrate the annual library pageant. In high school and college, she competed in interscholastic speech and reading events, becoming a national champion in prose and poetry reading. She later pursued a graduate degree in the oral interpretation of literature at Northwestern University.

“It’s sort of like a drama degree except you don’t have to put on make-up,” she explained.

After joining Perkins as the director of media and public relations in 2007, Beyer auditioned to become a volunteer narrator at the Perkins Library. At that point, she had spent many years as a public radio host and voiceover artist, and had honed the skills required to produce compelling audio recordings. Since narrators can’t memorize material in advance, like an actor or musician, they must develop the ability to read ahead of their voice, she said.

“You’re speaking and what’s coming out of your mouth is already left behind on the page,” she said. “You have to be able to think on your feet and understand what the inflection is going to be as you’re going forward. It takes a strong sense of story and storytelling.”

Beyer is one of 60 volunteer narrators who produce between eight and 12 audio books a month for the Perkins Library collection. Her storytelling provides entertainment and information for Library patrons like Sona Andresian, who thanked Beyer for her work during the Library Without Walls Q&A session.

“The books make me go all over the world,” she said. “I feel I’m part of the world out there because of these wonderful readers and these books.”

Gina Russo, who works at the Perkins Library, had similar praise for Beyer’s narration of Seaworthy, swordfishing boat captain Linda Greenlaw’s memoir of her return to sea after a 10-year hiatus after surviving “the perfect storm.”

“You did such a good job that I felt like that was really her speaking to me,” Russo said. “I really enjoyed the book thanks in part to you and the way you narrated it.”

Future Library Without Walls events will include conversations with local authors, lively discussions about popular books, presentations about the future of accessible reading and more. For information about upcoming Library Without Walls events, or to register to participate, Perkins Library patrons can call Gina Russo at 617-972-7683 or email gina.russo@perkins.org.

Read more about: Perkins Library, Volunteer