We have a customer who’s an audiobook addict. She comes in every couple of weeks to perk up frequent road trips with something new, and I’m always delighted to leap around the counter and chat with her, because we tend to love (and, sadly, loathe) the same kinds of books, and – equally important with audiobooks – the same narrators.
Handselling is always key in indie bookstores; we estimate that about 80-85% of what we sell is directly recommended by one of our staff, either in person or via our newsletter or staff picks. When it comes to audiobooks, that number jumps to about 99%. Since most bookstores don’t have listening stations, it’s really helpful to have heard an audiobook yourself so you know if the narrator is going to make you want to jump out of the car window or not.
I like to recommend audiobooks as an accompaniment to the printed book for kids who struggle with reading. When I was a school librarian in New York City, I discovered how effective it was to have kids listen while they read; it seemed to help them make the connection between written and spoken forms of words, and lifted them out of the struggle enough for them to enjoy the experience of reading. This was a huge relief and delight for them, and once parents get past the idea that it’s “cheating,” it’s helpful for them, as well.
Over the years, I’ve discovered that pretty much anything narrated by a British guy is going to be good. If the stories they narrated were mediocre, or if the performances were dull, I might blame their supremacy on my shelves on the embarrassing phenomenon whereby American women turn into puddles of goo when an English man opens his mouth and says, well, pretty much anything.
But there’s quality as well as beauty there; the British men have it all. They just make everything sound wonderful, don’t they? And fascinating. If Philip Pullman, Simon Jones, Stephen Fry, Anton Lesser, Simon Prebble, and Derek Jacobi (narrators of The Golden Compass, The Amulet of Samarkand, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Ruby in the Smoke, The Daydreamer [OP, more’s the pity], and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, respectively), ran waste management seminars, I would absolutely sign up for Sewage 101.
Also, there’s something reassuring about these sonorous British voices — a sage, grandfatherly quality, a sense of the world as a place where small people can accomplish great tasks if they work hard enough and have big hearts and believe, truly believe. Graeme Malcolm, who narrates The Tale of Despereaux so beautifully, can pull up a chair and read me a bedtime story any day.
Neil Gaiman, who has a sort of Alan Rickman-esque voice, is one of those rare authors, like Pullman, who actually does justice to his own work. Try The Graveyard Book or Neverwhere. And yet he gives over the reins when another narrator can do better: his 2006 YALSA ALEX Award-winning adult novel, Anansi Boys, is performed by the fantastic British actor Lenny Henry, whose Jamaican parentage gives him a richness in the various voices and accents that Gaiman rightly must have known he could not equal. (By the way, this is my all-time favorite adult audiobook, our bestseller at the store for a couple of years now, and a phenomenally funny, lively listen — an adult book teens love, too. Anansi Boys also won the Mythopoeic Award for Best Novel 2006, was a 2006 ALA Best Audiobook, and earned enough votes for a Hugo nomination, though Gaiman declined it. It was also short-listed for the Booker Prize. See? I just can’t shut up about it. Put me out of my misery: listen to it., please. I’ve heard it twice and will doubtless listen again.)
And do I even need to mention Jim Dale, whose vocal wizardry (har har, get it? wizardry?) with the Harry Potter audiobooks led him to become the first inductee into the Audio Publishers Association’s “Golden Voices” Hall of Fame. See The Audies for more info, as well as terrific lists of award-winning audiobooks and samples for your listening enjoyment.
Out of our Top Ten All-Time (since 1996) Audiobook Bestsellers, eight are by Brits. (Okay, seven of those are Harry Potter titles, so maybe that’s not fair. That darned series skews all the curves.) The non-HP titles are, if you’re curious, are: David Sedaris, Live at Carnegie Hall; The Golden Compass; and Philadelphia Chickens. Going further down the list yields many more Brits, too. There’s just something about ’em.
I promise to give equal time in future posts to the wonderful women of audiobooks, and to the American men. But for now, I’m happy with this British wave, and I’ll be surfing it for a long, long time.
What are the audiobooks you’ve loved so much you’d listen to them again? Narrators you’ll listen to even if the book is on crab-fishing and you’re a mysteries-only kind of reader? Which audiobooks have you found that turned reluctant readers into avid book lovers? We’d love to hear.