I never thought I’d be an audiobook lover. I thought audiobook narrators were unnecessary middlemen, interfering with the golden process of communion between the author’s brain and my own. But practicality sometimes trumps ideals: when I started commuting half an hour each way to work, I decided to hang up my reservations and give myself the gift of extra time with a book, no matter what form it took.
While listening to books doesn’t provide the same experience as reading them, it has a surprising number of side benefits. The most obvious is that audio is convenient for multitasking. With the Audible app on my smartphone, I can listen while I wash dishes or even take a shower. Rather than a substitute for reading, it feels like a book-lovers version of television, a play for my ears alone. Far from “ruining” my interpretation of a book, the narrator’s version is sometimes more enjoyable than my own. It’s also fun to listen to books I already love, and get a second chance to spend time with the characters.
Over time, I’ve learned that choosing an audiobook requires its own set of criteria. First of all, the book needs a strong narrator. A poor narrator feels like an annoying barrier between you and the material, but a good narrator brings the words to life. An audiobook also needs to have high entertainment value so that it can hold your attention while you’re doing something else. Finally, audiobooks can’t be too complex or thickly worded, because it’s easier to lose the thread of a story while listening. (Translation: save literary fiction for your nightstand.) I went for diversity in the following list, because when you’re exploring a new book medium, it’s fun to explore different genres, too!
Five Books For the Audio Newbie
By J.K. Rowling Read by: Jim Dale I toyed with the idea of leaving this book off the list, because Jim Dale’s talents seem so widely-known, but it felt wrong to leave out such a masterpiece. The Harry Potter series stands on its own, of course, but Jim Dale’s reading takes it to a whole new level. His ability to master literally hundreds of characters’ voices and keep them consistent throughout the seven-book series is nothing short of astonishing. I listen my way through the series at least once a year.
By: Tina Fey Read by: Tina Fey This memoir had me laughing out loud in the car; I swear it put me in a better mood for work each day. Tina Fey reads in her trademark dry manner, but she also shows great passion for her content. As a bonus, the audio includes clips of the Saturday Night Live shows where she played Sarah Palin. (I similarly enjoyed listening to Amy Poehler read her recent memoir, Yes Please.)
By: Nora Roberts Read By: Various actresses I don’t typically read romance novels, and I don’t think this series would have impressed me if I’d picked up the paperback. But via audio, the books turned into performances of a modern fairy tale, and I became completely engaged by this story of four unique women who live and work together in the bridal business, celebrating their friendship and falling in love.
By: Anna Quindlen Read by: Hope Davis I listened to this book several years ago, and it still tears my heart out to remember it. This is an exception I found to the “no literary fiction” rule, because the story is so harrowing that my attention was riveted at all times (which was probably not so great for my driving). I’m not going to give away the plot, but be prepared for a lot of gasps and maybe a few tears.
By: Malcolm Gladwell Read by: Malcolm Gladwell I refrained from listening to nonfiction (except memoirs) for a long time because I assumed it wouldn’t meet the required entertainment level. This is another prejudice I regret, since I’ve since found plenty of nonfiction audiobooks that keep me just as engaged as fiction. Gladwell’s books are particularly good choices, because he uses fascinating true stories to illustrate his points. I also find his voice very melodic, even soothing. One final tip: When choosing your audiobook, make sure to check whether it’s abridged or unabridged. I have yet to listen to an abridged version that didn’t leave me flummoxed at best, frustrated at worst. Happy listening!
Leanne Sowul is a writer, teacher and musician from the Hudson Valley, NY. She blogs about writing, reading and the love of words at Words From The Sowul. Contact her at leannesowul(at)gmail(dot)com, or follow her on Twitter @sowulwords.