What makes an ideal audiobook?

Rachel and I talked about audiobooks in a recent episode of Tea or Books?, or perhaps not all that recent, but I mostly talked about how they weren’t really my thing. Now that I commute every day, I’ve become much more open to trying them, and in my previous post I talked about listening to Claire Tomalin’s autobiography. But what sort of audiobooks should I choose, if I do?

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Because it’s not black and white, of course. Some people might loathe the idea of audiobooks, but nobody (one assumes) is delighted to listen to any at all. And I’m certainly slightly fussy – or, rather, I have a few rules for what I don’t like, and I’m trying to discover what I do.

What are my rules? Well, nothing abridged. I don’t want an incomplete version of the author’s work – why would I? It’s the reason I’ve never bought The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett in the Persephone edition, for instance. An edited version may be better than the original, perhaps, but it isn’t the same, and I’d constantly be wondering what was missing. (And, yes, somehow the work of an editor before a book is published is different… don’t ask me why.)

In a similar vein – nothing dramatised, unless I’ve already read the original. Or perhaps if it’s a story I already know really well.

And nothing which I have waiting for me in a beautiful edition that I’ve been looking forward to reading.

I’m testing the water at the moment with Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. I love Dickens, but I’ve still only read four of his novels – the size is a bit off-putting. And, while I do have a copy of this (along with all of Dickens – I have a feeling I swiped the set from my parents at some point), somehow the classics feel like fair game for this treatment. They’re so readily available that it doesn’t feel like I’ve made a conscious decision to include them in my book collection, and thus I can listen to it instead of reading the copy I have. Does that make any sort of sense?

I was swayed by it being Martin Jarvis, whom I love (and know chiefly through the Just William audiobooks, which we listened to over and over in our childhood). Then I remembered that I don’t love hearing comedy, because I want to do the timing in my head, and somebody else’s comic timing might not be the same as mine – but Jarvis is doing a grand old job so far. And you may already know that I think Dickens is first and foremost a comedic writer, and that adaptations over the years have placed far too much emphasis on the social commentary.

My only problems so far, besides occasionally wishing I could read the funny narrative myself, are connected with the vast cast and the way Dickens enjoys wallowing in the verbal acrobatics of a scene. It’s brilliant, but it means I’ve driven for half an hour before a scene is over – and even something like wine spilling on the ground can take 10 minutes to read out loud. I might not see characters turn up for the second time until I’m halfway through my week’s commute. And by the time I finish the audiobook, I might well have retired.

Do you have any rules for the audiobooks you pick, or any red flags?

13 thoughts on “What makes an ideal audiobook?

  • November 17, 2017 at 1:39 am
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    Love audio books. I agree abridged & dramatised versions are a definite no. I also have favourite narrators – David Timson reading Dickens & Gibbon, Harriet Walter, Juliet Stevenson, Miriam Margolyes, Hugh Fraser, Cornelius Garrett, Robert Glenister. I ike to listen to the same books I like to read. Just listened to Prunella Scales reading Cranford which was a delight. I’m always annoyed if a book I want to listen to is read by one of the narrators I can’t stand. I would always read the book in that case, couldn’t possibly listen to hours of a book read by someone whose voice grates or puts me to sleep. I’ll be interested to see what you choose next. Does your library have Overdrive or Borrow Box digital audio? Lots to choose from there. Just download the app to your phone & you’re set.

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  • November 17, 2017 at 3:42 am
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    I stick to unabridged versions too. I generally don’t go for dramatised versions, but loved the reading of The Golden Compass with Philip Pullman reading the narration and other readers doing the characters’ voices. Sebald’s Austerlitz and Kafka’s The Castle were great classics to listen to, not having read them before, partly because they were medium length—in 6-8 hour range and I only had a 15-20 minute commute so a long book like Middlemarch would have taken months. I also love listening to old favorites I haven’t read for awhile — the reading of To The Lighthouse brought out the fluidity of Woolf’s prose, and Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander brought out the highlights of the battle scenes especially since I generally skip through those when reading. I don’t like a lot of violence in what I read, but I need even less in audiobooks since when driving it’s dicey to skip/bypass— J. K. Rowling/Cormorant Strike I’m looking at you. And unless it’s something I’m going to listen and give my full attention to, nothing too complex — the history of jazz, yes; modern astronomy no. YMMV. Good luck with A Tale of Two Cities — and the long commute.

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  • November 17, 2017 at 12:15 pm
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    I pick my way carefully through Librivox which can be pretty much of a verbal mine field. I listen to a lot of audible books while sewing and knitting. The worst are so bad as to be funny. One particular reader has what my mother used to call a “hot potato in the mouth” accent. The reader is speaking English but it is hard to realize this for the first 5 minutes. Try her “Clover” to send a shiver down your back.

    The best are wonderful–much of the Jeeves series and these dramatized are very good also.

    No abridged versions ever.

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  • November 17, 2017 at 2:52 pm
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    I love audiobooks and listened to them in my car while commuting for 25 years. Since I’ve retired and don’t drive much anymore, I really miss them. I agree with the no abridgment rule. The best readers are those who somehow find a different voice for each character. Jim Dale managed a different voice for each Harry Potter character, the most remarkable audiobook I’ve ever listened to. Jonathan Cecil reading Jeeves and Wooster is a treat, too. Authors reading their own books can be a mixed bag. Some writers are terrible readers and others really bring their own works to life. Favorite readers and books are Flo Gibson (reading Jane Austen and the Brontes), George Guidall (who read the first audiobook I listened to, Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist, still my favorite Tyler), Robert Ian Mackenzie (reading Alexander McCall Smith), Juliet Stevenson (reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society), and Prunella Scales (reading Mapp and Lucia).

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  • November 18, 2017 at 6:31 pm
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    I too love audiobooks and listen to them all the time and I’m not even out driving anymore. I often listen to them on my phone while I’m relaxing or on my desk computer while I’m doing chores or whatnot. I don’t listen to abridged books either. For me, abridged means that it’s not the book as the author intended so why bother.

    My favorite books to listen to (and yes, I do re-listen all the time) are various and many, but my favorites so far have been: FREDERICA by Georgette Heyer, read by Clifford Norgate and THEY FOUND HIM DEAD, also by Heyer and also read by Clifford Norgate. Norgate has not recorded many books and I wonder why – he is fabulous! I also adore THE GRAND SOPHY by Heyer, read by Sarah Woodward who really brings the book and its wonderful characters to life. I would also add my favorite Heyer Regency, COTILLION, to the list, read by Phyllida Nash, another wonderful narrator who always makes me laugh out loud.

    Angela Thirkell’s books also lend themselves to audio – they are delightful. As well as Agatha Chrsite’s books often read by David Suchet himself or Hugh Fraser – both men have remarkable narrating powers. Unfortunately, Christie’s Miss Marple books have yet to be done well on audio. Much as I love Joan Hickson as Miss Marple in the BBC shows, she does not make for a very good narrator, being very difficult to understand. It’s confounding why there are no really good Marple audio recordings out there.

    Michael Innes’ books are SO wonderful on audio as are D.E. Stevenson’s. Connie Willis’ TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG is terrific as well. Oh, I’d better stop now or I’ll go on and on. I do love audio books!

    Any one of these are, far as I’m concerned, would be perfect for listening to on the way to work or anywhere else for that matter.

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  • November 18, 2017 at 8:44 pm
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    The first audiobook I really enjoyed was Patrick Gale’s Notes From an Exhibition about 5 years ago, now I usually have one on the go for commuting walks. Dickens is excellent, especially Bleak House and David Copperfield. I find I pay better attention to ornate writing on the audiobook than I would in print, because if I skim (stop listening) I’m completely lost. Some books, such as Christopher Fowler’s mysteries, I enjoy much more as audiobooks because I indulge the digressions. The Martian, The Help and Wild by Cheryl Strayed and were good audiobooks that I might not have read otherwise.
    Humour can be hard though, and narrators has can disappoint reading comedic novels.

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  • November 20, 2017 at 6:46 am
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    I don’t listen to audio books much these days because I’m not commuting, but when I was, it was more about the kind of book. I think they work well when there’s a clear narrative and the characterisation is distinctive. Anything with fragmented text or lashings of lyricism is too hard to follow IMO.

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  • November 20, 2017 at 7:52 pm
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    It was commuting that brought me to the audiobook as well. Like you as well, I will only listen to unabridged recordings and no dramatizations. Unlike when I read, I find that plot is really important for me for audiobooks. Audio is great for books you have read before and want to revisit but don’t want to take away from your other reading.

    Timothy West is a master of narration. His Trollope is particularly good and they make for really good audiobooks. Simon Prebble is also good at most things. Pym is great in audio as are E.F. Benson titles. Nevil Shute is great in audio format but perhaps they are too engineer-y for your taste. Brookner has quite a few audio titles that are very nicely recorded in particular one with Anna Massey. Specific titles that really worked for me:
    Cranford
    Coral Glynn (yes!)
    The Day of the Triffids (very old fashioned and fun)
    The Game of Oppposites (great novel and really fantastic narration)
    Although I still dislike The Turn of the Screw, Emma Thompson reading it is pretty amazing.

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  • November 21, 2017 at 8:02 pm
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    Like many who’ve commented, I listen while commuting. That means nothing too mentally taxing, nothing too dreary. I didn’t have a rule about abridged books until I started listening to the new Pullman just after I’d read the printed book and could hear all the cuts, which were terrible. Mainly I depend on a good reader. Often I find I prefer female readers because many male readers do a weird, off-putting falsetto to do women’s characters. That said, a couple of my favorite readers are men: Derek Jacobi and Tom Hollander. I was lukewarm about the books themselves, but I loved hearing them read.

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  • November 23, 2017 at 6:52 am
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    My current favourite audio book is Frankie and Stankie by Barbara Trapido – read by Janet Suzman ( she has such a lovely voice) . Durban in the 1950s in the company of two young sisters – simply fabulous.

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  • December 2, 2017 at 4:36 pm
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    Love audiobooks, I think audible is the best thing that has happened since the wheel. The *best* book I’ve listened to so far is The Master and Margarita narrated by Julian Rhind-Tutt. Martin and George are both great. I too steer clear of abridged books.

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  • December 3, 2017 at 1:42 pm
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    So many great recommendations – I am making a list to check with my library & then audible..

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