I adore reading and devour books whenever I get the opportunity to sit and read for a few minutes. But I also spend a fair amount of time walking or driving around rather than just sitting still and it is not advisable to be reading a book while doing either of these activities. Audiobooks are an excellent way to cram yet more reading in to a busy lifestyle, because you can be doing something else while listening to a book, plus you get the added bonus of someone reading to you, which is something most people last experienced as a child, when their parents read them a bedtime story.
I’ve sometimes heard people say that they are not keen on audiobooks because they don’t like having to listen to a story and would rather read at their own pace. I admit that when I first started using audiobooks, I found that I needed to concentrate a bit more than I would when reading on my own, because I wasn’t used to listening to voices for such long periods of time. At one point, however, I was listening to audiobooks more than I was reading actual books, and when I started reading books again, I found that I had to adjust a second time, because now it seemed to take more effort to read for myself than to listen to someone else. I currently have a good balance of books and audiobooks, which means that I get the best of both worlds.
Before discussing my top five audiobooks – and hopefully giving those new to audiobooks some suggestions for where to start – I want to mention two important points. First, audiobooks are usually pretty expensive. It generally works out better to buy them through Audible, or even to buy the CDs on Amazon and then upload them to your computer later. However, it is even cheaper – sometimes actually free – to borrow them from your local library. I would recommend trying all of these things before going to your local Waterstones, where audiobooks are generally about £20 each and thus, in my opinion at least, prohibitively expensive.
The second and most important point about audiobooks is one that probably seems blindingly obvious, but is nevertheless worth reiterating. The narrator must be very, very good. Just as badly written books can be intensely irritating to read, badly read audiobooks can be painful to listen to. Even when the narrator is good, sometimes something about their voice (pitch, accent etc) can be really grating – and this is often something that is personal to you, other people might love a particular narrator, but you may find them unbearable. In my list, I have mentioned four narrators that are absolutely superb at what they do. The other audiobook is read by a group of people rather than one single person – although they, too, are all extremely good.
- Three Men In A Boat by Jerome K Jerome, read by Hugh Laurie
My first choice for my top five is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. It still amazes me that this was written in the late 19th century, because it still sounds so fresh – and hilarious! Initially intended as a piece of travel-writing, but marketed as a comic story, Three Men In A Boat tells the story of three guys (and a dog) going on a boat trip down the Thames and describes in great detail the various adventures that they experience along the way. The reader, Hugh Laurie, is best known for his role in House, or, if you’re British, for his parts in Blackadder and Jeeves & Wooster. He is also a talented musician and is a magnificent audiobook narrator. It seems unfair for one person to possess such a staggering amount of talent in so many areas, but he is so very good at what he does that we can forgive him. He has also narrated some other books that I love, but this is the one that I go back to again and again and again. Unfortunately it is an abridged version (about two and a half hours), but his voice and narrative style are so perfect for this book that I don’t even care.
2) Just William by Richmal Crompton, read by Martin Jarvis
I have always adored the Just William series and still re-read them occasionally. Although they appear to be children’s books, they were actually originally aimed at adults, something that is abundantly clear when you read them as an adult and can appreciate how utterly bonkers some of William’s escapades are. Martin Jarvis has narrated many other audiobooks, but his readings of the William books are the best, in my opinion. Like Hugh Laurie and TMIAB, he hits just the right note in terms of tone and style, capturing William’s indignant attitude towards the apparently insufferable adults in his life perfectly. Miriam Margoyles selected the Just William audiobooks as one of her Desert Island Discs, so clearly I am not the only one who appreciates Jarvis’ talents!
3) Literally anything by PG Wodehouse, read by Jonathan Cecil
Martin Jarvis has also narrated some of PG Wodehouse’s books, but, apart from the fact that his versions are usually abridged, his readings do not quite cut the mustard, for me. I much prefer the beautifully modulated tones of Jonathan Cecil, who narrated the Jeeves stories, the Ukridge stories and several others. Sadly Cecil passed away a couple of years ago, before completing his readings of the whole Wodehouse oeuvre, all of which I would have purchased, had it been available. He does all the characters wonderfully well and his voice somehow matches Wodehouse’s world in a way that is difficult to describe, but just works for me. There is also a wonderful moment in his narration of Love Among the Chickens, very near to the beginning, where he is obviously struggling not to burst out laughing at the line he is reading, which I just love. This also happens with Hugh Laurie reading another book – it should really, I suppose, irritate the reader and distract from the story, but I think it just enhances the whole experience, to know that the narrator is not detached from the story, but is enjoying it just as much as the listener.
4) Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, read by Alan Bennett, Julie Walters, Thora Hird, Maggie Smith, Patricia Routledge, David Haig, Eileen Atkins, Penelope Wilton and Stephanie Cole.
This is an odd one to include and I must admit that I struggled to decide on what to pick, after selecting the other four, rather like when I was trying to choose my top five Wodehouse books. The first four came easily, but the fifth took some serious pondering. I finally chose this one, because although I listen to other audiobooks more often, they are mainly books read by the four other narrators on this list and I wanted to include five different readers, for variety’s sake. In fact, there are a number of different readers for this audiobook, which is a collection of Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues, read by several very well known actors. The monologues cover a range of themes and characters and are by turns poignant, playful, creepy, heartbreaking and, in a couple of cases, seriously unnerving. Hearing one character speak alone for about 20 minutes sounds rather boring, but Bennett’s extremely sharp observation of human nature and the way we behave and react towards those around us ensures that these stories will stay with you long after you have finished listening to them.
5) Harry Potter by JK Rowling, read by Stephen Fry
Last, but by absolutely no means least, my favourite audiobook series so far – Harry Potter. The magical world that JK Rowling created is brought to rich, colourful, joyous life by the effulgent Stephen Fry. He too has read a wide variety of audiobooks, but this is the absolute pinnacle of his narrative work. Despite the vast cast of characters in the Potter world, Fry manages to create distinct and memorable voices for each one, to the point where, even when you haven’t heard from a character for a while, when they suddenly pop up again in the story with no introduction, they are instantly recognisable from their voice alone. I don’t have enough superlatives to tell you how brilliant these audiobooks are – and if you happen to be an HP fan, they are an absolute must-listen.
So there you have my top five audiobooks! I do hope this list encourages you to try at least one of them – and if anyone is persuaded to give audiobooks in general a go after reading this, I would be absolutely delighted!