Easy on the Ears

Alison Morris - April 14, 2007

This morning I pulled into the parking lot behind our bookstore and had to forcibly remove myself from my car. It was a challenge to summon enough willpower to kill the engine and turn off the radio, not (this time) because I was listening to public radio, but because I am savoring every minute of the audiobook edition of Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. I can’t get enough!!

There’s nothing quite like hearing a well-written story read to you by someone who can capture each subtle change in a story’s tone, every catch in a character’s voice. I marvel at the fact that the right reader can even make a book I’ve read before seem like one that’s entirely new.

We hosted Kate DiCamillo for a book signing not long after she’d been awarded the Newbery Medal for The Tale of Despereaux. At one point during the evening Kate and I were discussing our mutual love for Listening Library’s recording of the book, which is read by Graeme Malcolm. I’ve never forgotten what Kate said at the time about Graeme and his reading: "He found things in that book that I didn’t even know were there." What higher praise could an author give to the reader of her book?

Last month I spent a weekend in Maine visiting my dear friend Jennifer Dowell, who’s the Managing Editor for Audiofile Magazine, "the Magazine for People Who Love Audiobooks." Jenn herself listens to audiobooks all the time, as you might well imagine, and is something of an expert on the subject (though she’s much too humble to admit it). I asked her to name her all-time favorite audiobooks (for any ages) and she came back with four that have earned a permanent place on her bookshelf. They are (in no particular order):

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, performed by the author and a full cast (Listening Library)

The Ultimate David Sedaris Box Set by David Sedaris, read by David Sedaris (Hachette Audio)

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, read by Stephen Fry (Random House Audio)

Billy Collins: A Performance at the Peter Norton Symphony Space by Billy Collins, read by Billy Collins (Random House Audio)

I personally don’t have the ability to narrow my own list of favorites down as far as Jenn, but I can say that if I were to list my top 10 favorite audiobooks they would definitely include 3 of the 4 she mentioned (the odd one out being The Hitchhiker’s Guide… which I haven’t listened to). I am so in love with the hilarity that ensues whenever David Sedaris reads his own work that I won’t read his books on my own — I insist on listening to them. And while I read and repeatedly re-read Billy Collins‘s poetry, I will drive almost any distance to hear the man give a reading. His delivery is so perfect and his wit so dry that hearing him read his poems is like encountering them for the first time. Likewise listening to any of the books in the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. I know, I know… You’ve already read them. Probably several times. But hearing Philip Pullman read the narration while a talented cast gives voices to the characters is like having the world in your imagination suddenly spring to life. I promise you they’re completely different stories in this medium. Give them a try.

What other audiobooks would be in my top 10?

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo, read by Graeme Malcolm (Listening Library, 8+)
Absolute perfection. Despereaux’s mother sounds like a French aristocrat and Roscuro speaks in silky Italian syllables. Fun for all ages, I promise you. Just ask my parents, who loved it. Or my boyfriend. Or Kate DiCamillo.

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, read by Cherry Jones (HarperCollins, 14+)
Tony Award-winning Cherry Jones is one of my favorite audio readers, and this recording showcases her talents beautifully. Cherry hails from my mother’s hometown of Paris, Tennessee, which might be why she so convincingly portrays every character in this very Southern story.

The Year of Secret Assignments by Jaclyn Moriarty, read by "various" (Recorded Books, 12+)
A great young adult novel about the letters exchanged by six Australian teenagers, this audiobook is narrated by (who else?) six Australian teenagers. Their distinct voices are perfectly matched to the book’s characters, making this sometimes disturbing, sometimes bitingly funny story seem that much more believable.

Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie, read by Jim Dale (Listening Library, 4+)
Beloved for his readings of Harry, Jim Dale is also a genius with Barrie. To all you folks (and there are so very, very many of you) who have never read the original Peter Pan, PLEASE allow Jim Dale to help you rectify that situation, lest you go on believing that Disney did things justice.

And speaking of Harry Potter, there are a number of book series that are wonderful on audio — so wonderful, in fact, that I think they deserve their own entry. In other words, stay tuned.

10 thoughts on “Easy on the Ears

  1. Nate Morris

    I love the Ender’s Game series of books. I should probably check out that audio version. I haven’t listened to the audio version of Hitchhiker’s Guide either, which is probably my all time favorite book, but I do have the original BBC radio drama on CD. Very good stuff.

  2. Cindy

    I didn’t know Fry did the Hitchhiker’s Guide – I’ll have to check that out some day. I just finished listening to To Kill a Mockingbird, ready by Sissy Spacek – I can’t believe I hadn’t read the book before, it was amazing.

  3. Shoumita

    I’m usually more of a traditional reader, but I just recently started thinking about audio books. Why? Well most of the books I read these days are geared toward toddlers, and although enjoyable, sometimes I want to read something written for adults! At any rate, one of my book club friends mentioned that the book we were reading (Paul Auster’s Oracle Night) was available as an audiobook read by the author. Interesting! Hearing the author’s own emphasis, voice, and words makes it a new “reading” experience. I promptly got Barack Obama’s reading of The Audacity of Hope and have likewise found myself stuck in my car at work. =) See you soon, Alison!

  4. Ary

    Lately, I’ve only been “reading” audiobooks, not having the time for more than technical reading with experiments and such. I very strongly recommend David McCullough’s reading of 1776… One of the most compelling voices in history today, whether written or spoken!

  5. ShelfTalker

    Shoumita, On the flip side, sometimes authors are NOT good readers of their own books. Lorna has had naught but bad things to say about The Kite Runner on audio and tells me that Khaled Hosseini should leave the reading of his books to the experts instead of tackling it himself!

  6. ShelfTalker

    Jill, You are SO right! Coraline was excellent on audio. Especially the creepy songs, which (come to think of it) it’s been far too long since we played for anyone at the store. Time to make some hairs stand on end!

  7. ShelfTalker

    Ary, Thanks for the 1776 tip! I’d be happy to listen to David McCullough read almost anything. Even terrible books. Might redeem them! If you want to get sucked into another non-fiction book on audio, try The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. Everything he writes is fantastic, and the reader of this one (Scott Brick) does an excellent job.


    Our family is hooked on several series and enjoy a combination of audio and traditional modalities. Our favs at the mo’ include The Bartimeus Trilogy read aloud by the wonderful Simon Jones (and yes, we liked his bit as The Book in Hitchhikers’ Guide, which is also fun-fun-fun); Winnie the Pooh complete works performed by Peter Dennis for whom no accolades are good enough; Artemis Fowl read by Nathaniel Parker is an excellent series as well. It is a long family tradition, book listening, and we are avid borrowers of the same from our excellent library, however, the ones I mentioned were instant ‘must haves’. I enjoy reading about others and have a new list for my weekly library trip. thanks!

  9. ShelfTalker

    Thanks for the great suggestions, Susanne! I didn’t think to include The Bartimaeus Trilogy in my run-down of favorite audio series, but you’re right — it’s a GREAT one. I haven’t yet tried the others you mentioned but will make a point of doing so.


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