Yesterday I drove from Buffalo to Birmingham, and on the way I listened to some music and then to part of Their Eyes Were Watching God before I realized that I’ve listened to that book about four times and it was time for a new audiobook. I stopped at Barnes and Noble and bought a couple of new ones, but I thought that before I drive back to Buffalo I’d try to get ya’ll’s audiobook recommendations, so I’m never again standing in front of the audiobook section wishing I had a clue.
There are a number of things I consider when shopping for an audiobook. First, I try to buy books that I would either like to read but know I never will (this time I bought Ian McEwan’s Atonement and Alice Sebold’s Almost Moon, the latter of which is very mediocre) or books that I know I should reread dozens of times (I have the Naxos abridged Ulysses, for instance, and every time I listen to it I hear something I’ve never noticed before; listening to audiobooks is a particularly effective thing to do when studying for orals if you have a list with a lot of novels). Second, I consider price: $40 is too much to pay for an audiobook, but $20-$30 is ok, and if an audiobook is $15 (as the Sebold was) I’ll snap it up. Third, I want a good story– I’ve tried listening to nonfiction and poetry while driving, which is the only sustained time I listen to books, and have found that I nonfiction generally puts me to sleep while poetry requires too much attention. Finally (but at the same time foremost), I consider the selection available, which is often not very good. I am usually forced to pick the most interesting-looking bestseller the bookstore has, although I have managed to find a few great classics. Since I usually buy audiobooks while on the road, rather than planning ahead and ordering them used from Amazon (on a few occasions I’ve done this), and since I’ve yet to figure out how to hook up my iPod to my car stereo, my options are limited.
Once I have audiobooks, there are a couple of obvious standards for whether they sit in my car forever, listened to many times, or get copied and sold back to Amazon. The ones I keep are well-performed, often with multiple narrators. They tell good, compelling stories that don’t tire upon retelling and the language is rich enough for one to pay attention to again and again. That said, I will separate my audiobooks into three tiers: 1. Love, 2. Like, and 3. Eh.
~ LOVE ~
1. Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. This might be my favorite audiobook, partly because of the actors who read the grandparents’ parts. There aren’t pictures in this audiobook like there are in the real book, but instead there are multiple narrators who give the book texture. It’s a great story to listen to over and over again. This is a 2-day drive book.
2. Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Another good story with a lovely narrative voice. It’s just long enough without being too long–it’ll last you about one day of driving.
3. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The narrator brings out the dark humor of the book, and of course, it’s a very good book that you can stand to listen to multiple times.
4. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. This amazingly poetic book is so deeply textured that even if one tires of the story (and I haven’t), there is so much language to appreciate that it’s like sucking a hard candy with multiple flavored layers. The narrator has a slow drawl but you couldn’t sleep through this if you tried. Also, the narrative is very empowering.
5. Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. A great reading; a good length.
* LIKE *
1. James Joyce’s Ulysses. I like this book a lot, of course, and I like the Naxos abridged recording. If you’ve never heard Ulysses (or even part of it) read aloud then you haven’t really “read” Ulysses. It’s a book to be “read” by the ear as much as the eye, and it’s worth giving your ear a chance to take it all in without the eye being part of the process. Molly’s book is particularly worth a listen. I do get kind of sick of this book after awhile though– probably because I listen to and/or read it fairly often.
2. Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This is a BBC Radio performance and very, very well done.
3. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Again, a very fine recording, but it’s a very creepy book and not one that I personally feel a need to listen to/read again and again. I love the book and appreciate it both as a written document and as a forceful critique of patriarchy, but it’s a very disturbing book.
- EH -
1. Alice Sebold’s Almost Moon. Simply not very interesting: a mediocre book with no texture and a superficial plot. A mediocre Joyce Carol Oates book is better than this.
2. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Too long. Boring in the middle when he becomes an activist.
3. Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. Kind of annoying.
4. Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. I couldn’t concentrate on this– in non-fiction it’s good to eschew a progress narrative, but when listening to a long audiobook you kinda need that narrative arc.