So here’s the geekiest thing about me: I love audiobooks. Seriously. It’s probably a problem. If there’s a 12-step program for audiobook addiction, I should sign up.
You thought I was listening to music while walking the dog? Oh no. That would be an audiobook. Earphones in while I’m cleaning the bathroom? Audiobook. While I’m cooking dinner? Audiobook. Jogging around the park? Running errands in the car? You guessed it! I’m listening to a book!
Now, I don’t like listening to books unless I’m doing something else. So one thing you won’t find me doing is sitting on the couch, listening to a book and twiddling my thumbs. It’s simply a “keep the mind occupied while the body’s doing something else” activity. It makes cleaning go faster, cooking more interesting, and running more tolerable. Let me tell you: When I find a really good, can’t-put-it-down listen, I am so productive! The whole house gets clean! I cook elaborate meals! I take the Bea on extra-long walks! Because I can’t just sit and listen, you see. I have to be doing something else at the same time.
Since it’s all about multitasking, there are certain things I look for in book. These aren’t dyed-in-the-wool requirements, but are things I look for when selecting an audiobook.
It’s fast-paced. I’m doing something else. Frequently a less-than-pleasant something else. I want to get hooked! I want it to move along! The faster the book moves, the faster I move, so to speak. So bring on the thrillers and mysteries, the light fiction and pop-corn, beach-reading books. (The books I listen to are generally not the same books I would choose to read.)
It’s unabridged. Abridgements, on the other hand, move too fast. And really, what’s the point? I want long. Seriously. I have 20+ CD books that I’ve listened to multiple times. If it’s abridged, it’s not for me.
It doesn’t make me think too hard. Again, I’m doing something else. A boring something else, but something else nonetheless. If I zone out for a minute to concentrate on, say, determining how much oregano to put in the pasta sauce, I don’t want to have to pause, rewind, or worry about missing something overly important. (It may seem like this contradicts the fast-paced rule, but it doesn’t. Those books have a tendency to repeat things a bit more than the literary-type tales.)
It has a single narrator. Some people really go in for “full cast productions”, but I’m not one of them. I almost always find that they break me out of the story, especially when they’re unabridged. Who wants dialog interrupted by “he said”- and “she said”-type interjections, in a different voice, every other sentence? (Now when a single narrator does voices–the best example being Jim Dale for the Harry Potter books–it can be great.) I also dislike background music, which usually only pops up unexpectedly and makes me think, Huh? Where’s that coming from? Oh. Which obviously breaks me out of the story. No, I’m not a fan of having multiple readers. (There are some exceptions. For example, the full cast production for the His Dark Materials series is really excellent.)
It gets foreign pronunciations right. Of course, you can’t usually tell how this will be until you’ve listened to it, and a bad pronunciation is only going to bother someone who knows what a good accent sounds like. But if you do know–know for example that it’s pronounced BAbushka rather than baBUSHka–it can be really grating when someone messes it up. So while I’m not phased if the narrator mispronounces a French phrase, you can bet I notice a mispronounced Spanish word.
But within this framework, let me tell you–there are a lot of exceptionally good audiobooks, and they’re becoming increasingly popular. (I can find almost anything I’m interested in at my local library.) In no particular order, here are 10 of my absolute favorite listens:
- Harry Potter series.
Jim Dale’s narration of the Harry Potter library has been well and justly praised. Personally, I think these audiobooks far surpass the movies–and even rival the actual bound books.
- The Help by Kathryn Stockett.
With a different reader performing each of the protaganists–Skeeter, Minnie, and Aibileen–this production gives each woman a sense of character that goes beyond the written word. If not done well, the spoken dialects would sound contrived and stilted. But this is well done.
- The Millenium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson
I’m not sure why I enjoy this series so much as an audiobook, but I definitely do! The narration is crisp and clean, and the story chugs along full tilt.
- Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorson by Garth Nix, read by Tim Curry
Now one reason I enjoy these books so much is because I appreciate a good, strong female lead. Sabriel is my favorite, but Lirael has a stronger character progression. And Tim Curry is, in my opinion, right up there with Jim Dale in terms of voice work and evocative narration. That’s right, I put these in the same league as the Harry Potter audiobooks.
- In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson (read by the author)
The only nonfiction on my list, this is an absolutely stellar travelogue read by the author. It’s so funny that I have a hard time not looking like a laughing idiot when listening to it in public. Australia through Bill Bryson’s eyes is truly a wonderful place.
- The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith
These light detective stories are all about character and setting, and the slow, nuanced narration by Lisette Lecat really brings the stories to life.
- Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz
Dean Koontz is a master of the quick-paced, slightly off-tilt thriller. He’s extremely prolific, and naturally some of his books are better than others. Odd Thomas, a young guy who “sees dead people”, is one of my favorites. There are a few books in the series, but the first is by far the strongest. (Another Dean Koontz yarn that I enjoyed a lot was Life Expectancy.)
- Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
Anansi was a relatively minor but thoroughly enjoyable character in the great American Gods. This yarn takes a look at Anansi’s family–in particular, at his son, Fat Charlie. The story is good, and the narration is top notch. This one if fun, light, and filled with humor.
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, read by Kate Reading
There are a lot of different audio versions of the Pride and Prejudice, but this is the one I have stuck with. The story is (obviously) classic, and this performance is smooth and unaffected.
- The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
In this book, Neal Stephenson takes nanotechnology and runs with it into a near future of dazzling potential. I like Stephenson, and this is my favorite–in large part because of the wonderful performance by Jennifer Wiltsie.