What’s your favorite audiobook?

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.


About Jessica Smith

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22 Responses to What’s your favorite audiobook?

  1. Jason says:

    Kerouac’s “On the Road,” read by Matt Dillon is excellent. The whole book is written like a guy tellin you a story as you’re sittin in a bar or stowing away on a train with him. Matt Dillon does a brilliant job extracting that from the work and he’s got a salty voice that makes you think he’s actually lived the story.

  2. Paul Squires says:

    I’ve never listened to an audio book of “Ulysses” but it is a wonderful idea. I shall pop out and get one today. I listen to the old Richard Burton reading “Under Milkwood” occassionally. It’s beautiful.

  3. Thanks guys– @Jason I stared at that book yesterday at B&N wondering whether I should get it– seems like it’d either be the perfect book to drive long distances with or be really boring. I’ve never read the book. Thanks for telling me. @Paul, the Ulysses I listen to is a Naxos abridged recording with two voices; 4 CDs, which is much more listen-able than the entire thing (which is over 30 CDs I think). What’s “Under Milkwood”?

  4. B says:

    Jeremy Irons reading Nabokov’s Lolita. Creepy, yes, but Jeremy Irons has the loveliest, most seductive voice. My sister and I used to grab breakfast on the way to school in the mornings and listen to Lolita in my car in the stadium parking lot!

  5. Bronwen says:

    I am a total sucker for the Dorothy Sayers “Lord Peter Whimsey” mysteries as read by Ian Carmichael. I have “Strong Poison,” “Clouds of Witnesses” and “Gaudy Night.” I often put them on to a random chapter on my ipod while doing the dishes, just because I find Carmichael’s voice so soothing and amusing. I’ve also heard good things about the “On the Road” recording, but I haven’t heard it myself.

  6. @Brooklyn I do think Irons’s portrayal of Humbert on tape is better than his film portrayal, which doesn’t bring out the Creepy as much (but then, the preface of Lolita is so important for keeping the proper frame of mind, since the narrator is so evil and convincing anyways… if Nabokov were a worse writer the problematic ambiguity probably wouldn’t exist but then again wouldn’t cause us to think about it… makes the book “difficult,” if it is stylistically easy to read).

  7. Karlton says:

    Since B. already called Jeremy Irons’s Lolita, I’ll have to go with Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. I was mesmerized from start to finish.

  8. Matt says:

    Do you like Wodehouse? His stuff would be fun to listen to, I imagine. If you’re into that kind of thing, which I am.

    Or old radio plays. In which case you’re guaranteed to hear different voices doing different parts.

  9. @Kariton Cool–that’s another book I probably wouldn’t get around to reading on paper, so a good idea. Good to know that it’s worth listening to. @Matt I’ve never read Wodehouse? Some people I know like him. What’s the deal? … I want to get some recordings of old radio readings of books like Dr. Jekyll & Mr Hyde & other similar Victorian suspense novels–

  10. Paul Squires says:

    There’s some great ideas there, P. G. Wodehouse would be very cool. Under Milk Wood is a long narrative poem written as a radio play by Dylan Thomas. My version has Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. It sounds beautiful.

  11. Matt says:

    I guess he’s basically the gold standard of comic novelists. Especially the British kind. To give you an idea: “As I sat in the bath-tub, soaping a meditative foot and singing, if I remember correctly, ‘Pale Hands I Loved Beside the Shalimar’, it would be deceiving my public to say that I was feeling boomps-a-daisy.” —the beginning of Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit, which I admit is the only one of his nearly 100 books that I’ve read. But I liked it. Witty, lighthearted farce to accompany your vehicular excursions. (Also check out the old BBC Jeeves and Wooster t.v. series with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry.)

  12. Matt says:

    (Damn. I must apologize to the ghost of Laurence Sterne for alleging that the gold standard of comic novelists is anyone but he. (I wonder if Tristram Shandy is on tape…))

  13. Tristram Shandy is exactly the kind of thing I should “read” on tape. I’m looking into more old novels, too– try to fill in the gaps of my mental bookshelf.

  14. You’ll need a spare, oh, something like 350 bucks — and you’ll have to excuse the often maddeningly quick pace of the reader — but the 18 CD Finnegans Wake that is out there will blow your mind!

    The Tender Buttons that’s out there (you can burn a copy yrself, I think) is pretty fun too.

    Vonnegut’s autobiographical stuff would be terrific — it’s freakin’ hilarious and wise as an old owl — but alas it looks like TimeQuake, which is rich with such stuff, is available only abridged, on cassette.

  15. B says:

    I agree about Jeremy Irons on film versus book tape. I didn’t care for the film version at all- James Mason reigns (in my heart, at least) as the ultimate HH. And HIS voice is absolutely gorgeous, too (see (hear): NXNW. Oh lala!). Also- Peter Sellers. Pe-ter Sell-ers.

    I don’t think Lolita is a flawless novel (plot-wise), but the writing itself is flawless, yep.

  16. Amelia says:

    Since you haven’t read the books, maybe try Harry Potter; I know that the audiobooks are widely available, at any rate.

  17. Stv Ptrmir says:

    I’m currently listening to Nelson Mandela’s “The Long Walk to Freedom” (abridged) read by Danny Glover. It’s great to get the pronounciation of all these African names and terms, like Xhosa. Previously this year, I’ve listened to Louise Erdrich’s “The Last Report on the Miracle at Little No Horse” (a novel) also great for the Ojibwe in it, and Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential” read by the author, which is great because of his voice and how personal the perspective is, and Franz Kafka’s “The Castle” which was great though I’d have preferred to listen to it in German, but the English translation was good enough and it is a great, hilarious book. I’d recommend all those, and I got them all from the Minneapolis Public Library. In the past, I’ve also gotten Bob Dylan’s “Chronicles” read by Sean Penn, and Erdirch’s children’s book “The Birchbark House” which we listened to as a family around the house, almost like radio theater. I’m big on the library resources. It’s free and though I listen mostly while driving around town, it’s better than most talk radio and you can get through it in 3 weeks before the audiobook has to be returned. (I still listen to cassettes though so that’s a limited market now.)
    Besides that we’ve bought and listened to quite a few kids books on family trips, so Beverly Cleary has been good for us (Ramona Quimby and Henry Huggins), as well as “From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler” and Madeline L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time.” It’s great to get that stuff on the iPod and most of it I never read as a kid.
    I’m going to have to check out Ulysses on audiobook. I’ve been meaning to re-read it, and To The Lighthouse, too. Thanks for the suggestions. But, I say use your library, then you’ve got no risk involved if you don’t like the book.

  18. @Steve, ooh, the Erdrich sounds up my alley. I should use the library, of course. I always forget to do stuff like that, and then I end up halfway to my destination at B&N looking for a new audiobook. Kafka would also be great. I have some of the short stories on tape (and many of them on CD in german, but I’d prefer it in English since I don’t want to have to think about it that hard while I’m driving– my German is too rusty). … I should recommend to you the audio version of “The Trumpet of the Swan” (EB White) which my brother listened to incessantly as a child (though if your kids are listening to L’Engle they’re probably too old for White … also, have they read the Westing Game?)

    OK. I resolve to use the library.

    @Amelia I feel like I do want to read those books, actually sit down and read them myself, I just haven’t gotten around to it yet.

  19. Patrick Dillon says:

    Especially if you’re utilizing the CD burner, I would encourage you to save money by picking up audio books at your public library. You don’t have to plan ahead and it’s free. I picked up Special Topics in Calamity Physics (because I read a bad review but heard it was good) and some William Gibson book I can’t remember the title of.

  20. Amish says:

    Does “America: The Book: The Audiobook” count?

    By far my favorite non-music, non-NPR thing to listen to in the car.

  21. j vazes says:

    I really liked ‘Hearts in Atlantis’ by Stephen King read by William Hurt

  22. I did finally get Matt Dillon’s recording of On the Road, and it’s perfect. It’s a very good rendition of that book. I listened to it on a long drive to Lowell.

    You can also download audiobooks for free from many public libraries, including the NYPL which has a vast selection and is easy to join. In many cases, these audiobooks “expire” after ~2wks and disappear from your mp3 player. (The very cool software/service that does this is called Overdrive.)

    More for the “Eh” list: Kafka’s The Trial and Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

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