Every year about this time, my suspense builds.
Will any new recordings of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" there always seem to be a few knock my all-time favorite off its high, high pedestal?
That would be the late Sir John Gielgud, reading an abridgment first published in 1988.
Will they match his stentorian pronouncements?
Marley was dead to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.
Will they come up with a better way to tell what is, on its most basic level, a ghost story? Gielgud does such a good job with the pregnant pause that he might as well be wowing a scout troop around a deep-woods campfire in the middle of the night.
The bell struck twelve. Scrooge ... beheld a solemn phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, towards him.
And then there's his merry giddiness when, as Scrooge, he realizes Christmas has not passed, and there's still time to mend his ways.
A merry Christmas, Bob! A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you for many a year!
I have an old cassette tape of this recording that I squirrel away each January, and then have to hunt for come Thanksgiving. It's a wonder the thing hasn't deteriorated beyond comprehension.
I listen to it every December once by myself, once more with my husband on whatever holiday trip we might take, and sometimes once again. I can recite entire portions along with Gielgud. Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?
A company named Hodder Headline now sells the recording for $18.
Dickens' lovely novella is in the public domain, which means publishers don't have to pay for the rights to record it. The years have brought no shortage of excellent recordings. Frank Muller, Patrick Stewart and John Lee have come close. But they haven't booted Gielgud.
This year's batch two new titles is a disappointment. Both are new releases of older recordings.
HighBridge has released a recording of a 1990 National Public Radio broadcast featuring Jonathan Winters (1 hour, $14.95). Winters says on the cover notes that "it was a treat" for him to play all the characters, but it didn't seem that he approached the work with vigor.
Worse, his Scrooge sounded less like a human and more like the voice narrator Gerard Doyle used in the fantasy novel "Eragon" for the dragon. I found it jarring.
Caedmon Audio has rereleased a 1960 dramatization (1 hour, $12.95) with a cast of hundreds playing the parts. OK, it was a cast of only 13, but the impression was that it was a lot.
There are some real winners here, including Sir Ralph Richardson, Paul Scofield and Michael Lewis.
The recording includes sound effects like the chiming of clocks, Marley's clanking chain of cash boxes, and so on. There's even the sound of mewling children when the boy and girl, Ignorance and Want yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish come out from the third ghost's cloak.
The whole thing has the effect and undeniable charm of an old-timey radio broadcast.
If this is your thing, go for it.Me, I'm sticking with Gielgud.