Now you’re talking! The best audiobooks, chosen by writers
Memoirs, mysteries and coming-of-age stories are lifted by a powerful voice – that of a great actor, or the writer in full reveal. Here, 15 artists and critics pick their favourite audiobooks
Sun 2 Aug 2020 04.00 EDT Last modified on Sun 2 Aug 2020 06.11 EDT
Kit de Waal
The Chimp Paradox by Prof Steven Peters (2012) is a fascinating book about cognitive behaviour that deconstructs the different parts of all of us: the human, the chimp and the computer. It’s such a serious subject, yet the narration by Peters is delivered quite flat, with a strong northern accent, which somehow makes it matter of fact and easily digestible. The sentence “There has been a breakdown in chimp management” had me howling with laughter.
Jane Gardam’s Old Filth (2015) is also superb in every way, brought to life by an amazing performance by the actor Bill Wallis, of Blackadder fame. He gets under the skin of the central character, an ageing QC, with such skill that you feel you’re reading his thoughts.
It’s not every writer that can narrate their own stories well but Pictures in My Head by Gabriel Byrne (1995) and Nevertheless by Alec Baldwin (2017) are outstanding. Both cover these actors’ lives from childhood to the present with humour and candour. I loved them both.
Comedian, writer and radio presenter
If you are seeking a shamanic spell that will imprint the block universe of Northampton in your mind for eternity, then you should listen to the 60 hours of Alan Moore’s Jerusalem (2016), captivatingly read by Simon Vance. At the end of a week’s listening, you are more than likely to start again, and eventually you will tell your bemused partner that you are moving the whole family to Northampton to spend the rest of your life in its ghost-crammed streets. https://w.soundcloud.com/player/?visual=true&url=https%3A%2F%2Fapi.soundcloud.com%2Ftracks%2F867231025&show_artwork=true Advertisementhttps://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café (2016), on Sartre, Camus, De Beauvoir and those others that inspired our first duffel coat purchase, is a wonderful book to read, but listening to it allows your eyes to wander around the cafe and judge the anxiety, confusion and masks of those hunched over drizzle cake or frothing milk.
Finally, neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky’s hefty book on the biology of human behaviour, Behave (2018), read by Michael Goldstrom, captures some of the beguiling lecturer’s playfulness.
Author and film-maker
I recommend Ramble Book by Adam Buxton (2020), less for the prose, although there are wonderful, melancholy passages about his father, and Bowie, and 80s nostalgia, perfect for those of us who get teary-eyed remembering the first time we heard Dexys Midnight Runners or whatever. But it’s more for how much fun he has with the possibilities. He writes jingles for the start of each chapter. He takes us on lovely, audio-only tangents. There used to be a solemnity to audiobook recording. Diverging from the set text was considered heretical. Adam’s book is full of the joys of doing the opposite.
Playwright and poet
In the coming-of-age story We Need New Names (2013)by NoViolet Bulawayo, you are transported to Zimbabwe through the voice of Darling, a 10-year-old girl growing up in the shanty town of Paradise under Mugabe’s regime. To see the country through a child’s eyes is joyous and heartbreaking. You worry for her future. But then we migrate to the midwest United States and we’re standing in the cold, with Darling realising that the grass is not always greener.
For a different voice, I saw a video on YouTube of spoken word artist and activist Rafeef Ziadah performingWe Teach Life, Sir. The line “Today, my body was a TV’d massacre” just kept ringing in my ear. I went to look for her albums, Hadeel and We Teach Life, in which you get lessons in the plight of Palestine, protest and celebration of the Arabic language. Her voice captures the thrill of live music and performance in the recordings.
Trevor Noah quoted from David and Goliath(2013)by Malcolm Gladwell when speaking about power and legitimacy on The Daily Show. The book is a series of case studies exploring how underdogs beat the odds. I listened to these examples of triumph while starting my Couch to 5K programme and started to confront the things I deem as disadvantages in my life and work. I finished the book and kept running!
Irish actor Jim Norton’s reading of The Third Policeman (2012) is one of my favourite audiobooks, because it added a layer to Flann O’Brien’s novel that I had failed to perceive when I read the prose. Beneath the glorious surrealism and the joy of the tall tale, I found a level of existential horror and of fear.
I’m also listening to Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, narrated by Peter Wickham (2020). It’s a joy hearing him take the longest possible route through any sentence.
And I’ve got Stephen King’s The Bazaar of Bad Dreams (2015) on the go – a short story here, another one there, for walks or times when I want a snack and not a meal.
The best thing about the audiobook format has been watching the past two decades of change. The head of the audiobook division at my publisher resigned in around 2003, telling me that cars no longer having cassette decks had killed the audiobook format. Her replacement showed me an odd-looking object called an iPod, and I knew that we were nowhere near the end.
One of the best narrations I’ve heard in the past couple of years is of Kamila Shamsie’s reimagining of Sophocles’s Antigone, Home Fire, by actor Tania Rodrigues (2017). She gives voice to a wide range of characters: Home Fire is a complex story, with the interwoven lives of two families, but her voice drew me in and I never lost my way.
I’d also recommend Prof Emma Smith reading her book This Is Shakespeare(2019). It’s a fascinating take on 20 of his plays, exploring the questions they raise and the themes that underpin them. It’s based on her Oxford lectures, so it’s perfectly pitched for listening to, and she has a very engaging voice.
Writer and broadcaster
The Daily Show host Trevor Noah is the son of a white Swiss father and black Xhosa mother, and was born in South Africa in 1984 – a time when this interracial union was punishable by five years in prison. Born a Crime (2016) is his devastatingly personal story of the psychosis of apartheid thinking, which also manages to be moving and hilarious. No one can convince me there is a better way to read this than by having Noah narrate it to you. https://w.soundcloud.com/player/?visual=true&url=https%3A%2F%2Fapi.soundcloud.com%2Ftracks%2F867023923&show_artwork=true&secret_token=s-Aw11LEOvcf3 Advertisement
I also think that Scots Makar Jackie Kay’s voice is itself a form of poetry. In Red Dust Road (2010) she takes you on a journey through adoption in the 1960s, a gay black coming of age and a battle to find and love her biological parents and her Nigerian heritage.
Anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston believed profoundly in the literary genius of African American oral traditions, and set about documenting them at great personal cost. So it seems fitting to experience her greatest novel – Their Eyes Were Watching God, written in 1937 – in audio form. To have the veteran civil rights activist and acting legend Ruby Dee read it in the 2004 version is a huge privilege, one that I recommend.
I also had to choose something narrated by Adjoa Andoh, because she narrates so many of the books I listen to. Andoh stars alongside a stellar cast in a performance of Naomi Alderman’s addictive novel The Power(2016).
Geneticist and broadcaster
Michelle Obama’s Becoming was 47 times better read by her, and deeply moving, not least because of what we have lost. I also binged the two new volumes of Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust, Michael Sheen narrating. My absolute favourite though is Slaughterhouse-Five, narrated by Vonnegut himself.
I’m very picky about what I listen to – I have to be so into the voice of the reader to prefer it to reading myself, but I do love Crystal Rasmussen’s Diary of a Drag Queen (2019), which is read by Crystal, AKA Tom Rasmussen. It’s a memoir partly about combating shame, and though some of the stories ought to make you squirm, having them read out by the author is a liberating experience, and it takes you past the shame and into something much warmer.
The other book I listen to regularly is Alan Bennett Reads Childhood Classics (2017) to get my five-year-old son to sleep. The Wind in the Willows works best for us. There’s something about the language and the concepts, sometimes quite melancholy and often out of a five-year-old’s grasp but, combined with the comforts of small woodland animals, deeply soporific.
Author and podcaster
Believe it or not, the best audiobook I have ever listened to was actor Rob Lowe’s autobiography, Stories I Only Tell My Friends (2011). For some reason, hearing his crazy life story read in his own soothing, familiar voice was riveting. I listened to it all in one go, on a long car ride to my mother’s house.
Observer theatre critic
Bill Nighy is ideal casting in the Charles Paris Mysteries as the world-weary actor and detective, his voice dripping with whisky, Shakespeare and scepticism. Adapted by Jeremy Front from the novels by Simon Brett, the mysteries are perfect for late-night listening. The plots are intriguing; the dialogue quick and sardonic. Paris’s knotty relationships – with an on-off wife and a weaselly agent – are engaging but never sentimental.
For a very different experience, actor Emma Fielding brings a mix of freshness and intensity (and a short “a”) to The Grasmere Journals (2014), Dorothy Wordsworth’s account of life with her brother in Dove Cottage. The entries, accompanied by readings of Wordsworth’s poems by Kenneth Cranham and Alex Jennings, are perfectly paced for listening. Here is the poet composing in the wood, and setting off in new pantaloons; here is Dorothy noticing two kinds of anemone and tucking into tapioca for supper. Life glides, as Dorothy says of the river – “not travelling in a bustle”.
Novelist and game writer
As a PhD supervisor at Bath Spa University I recommend Umberto Eco’s How to Write a Thesis (2015) to all my students. It’s applicable for any personal research or academic work, and from someone who really knew his stuff: listen with headphones and remember what it’s like to sit in quiet libraries.
I also love Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004) – an atmospheric and delightful wintry book with brilliant narration by Simon Prebble. It’s 32 hours, so enough time to make a whole new habit of walking or quilting or baking focaccia while you listen. You’ll be bereft when it’s over.
Julian Rhind-Tutt also does an excellent job of narrating Sophie Hannah’s new Poirot novels in the proper “a different voice for each character” style. A delicious treat.
When we were children, growing up in Guyana, we relied on teenagers to give us descriptions of plot, with actions, of the adult-rated films we couldn’t get into – like vampire movies or spaghetti westerns. This love of listening to stories has carried on for me, and I listen to a lot of audiobooks when I am working. I love the way they can take me to another place, and sometimes their atmospheres seep into my work.
In The Dry by Jane Harper (2016) a detective returns to his home town for the funeral of his best friend, who has, everyone says, committed suicide after murdering his wife and six-year-old son. It’s a brutal small-town thriller, set in Australia during the worst drought in a century. You can see the heat and the landscape – listening to it is like watching a film.
I’m listening to My Sister, the Serial Killer (2018) by Oyinkan Braithwaite as I paint at home during lockdown. It’s so refreshing to be able to hear, literally, an African voice from narrator Weruche Opia. When I first started listening to audiobooks this would’ve been narrated by a white actor putting on a terrible Nigerian accent. Told in a straightforward manner, this is the ultimate “cleaning up after your little sister” narrative.
Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (2013) is an incredibly gripping and moving story, impeccably written – and actor David Pittu is a master reader, able to tackle any accent with panache (his reading won two Audie awards in 2014). He doesn’t sound like an actor – it’s as if the many and varied characters are actually talking to you. This kept me completely absorbed when I was making frequent long journeys backwards and forwards to hospital.
Observer audio critic
Michael “Mike D” Diamond and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz, the two remaining members of the Beastie Boys (Adam “MCA” Yauch died in 2012 of cancer), collected and collated Beastie Boys Book, a memoir that came out in 2018. It features several authors aside from the Beasties themselves, and hops between genres (recipes, cartoons, photos, as well as chatty recollections). The audiobook takes this one step further, with the Beasties’ celebrity friends reading sections, such as Jarvis Cocker, Snoop Dogg, John C Reilly, Chloë Sevigny, Bette Midler, as well as themselves. Just fab.