Listen Up: Sometimes the Audiobook is Better
By Emily Webber
I used to be one of those people who always apologized for listening to a book. I’m sure you’ve heard this too—the oh, I ONLY listened to it line. Then there’s the debate between print versus eBooks that seems to rage on endlessly; audiobooks usually don’t even have enough clout to factor into those conversations. It’s as if consuming the audio version of a book equates to cheating. But in some cases, audiobooks spark a more intense experience. You have to tune other things out to listen to the words—you can’t skim, and the story unfolds at its own pace. Listening to someone read breathes life into the voices of the characters and lets you more fully experience the rhythm and lyricism of the language.
Here’s a list of audiobooks that I believe deliver a better experience than reading the book. Each of these picks will engage your imagination and provide a more immersive storytelling experience.
I’m a big fan of George Saunders’ short stories, but I couldn’t get through his first full-length novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. Instead of giving up, I listened to the audiobook, and it delivered an entirely different experience. Much of the book takes place in a limbo place after death. Saunders swarms the reader with a multitude of ghostly voices creating a bold and uniquely structured story. The audiobook is read by a full cast of narrators, and you can let the different voices of all the ghosts roll through your head. Without a doubt, this novel was better to listen to, and the full cast of readers made it more compelling and easier to follow.
Laura Lippman’s novel is inspired by 40s noir novels, and the atmosphere is heavy and dark. The main character, Polly, is difficult, damaged, and violent, which is to say she’s not too likable until Lippman reveals the many layers of the backstory. Lippman’s descriptions of the small town her characters find themselves in are vivid and real. There’s a perfect undercurrent of danger, secrecy, and tension running through this whole story, and while you listen, you’ll feel the burn more intensely.
This short story is classic Joyce Carol Oates. She intimately knows what lies deep in the human heart and shows all of it to her readers. At under three hours, you’ll be sucked into this strange, dream-like coming of age story from a master of suspense and listening to it on audio heightens the eerie quality.
Howrey takes on space travel in this novel set in the near future. She focuses on the human aspect and delivers multiple points of view, both from the astronauts participating in a simulated Mars training mission and of their family members. The narrator deftly handles these diverse and powerful characters. Each voice comes alive, allowing the reader to see the full impact of space travel both on the people signed up for the mission and their family and friends.
I know there are already many books in this series and a hit HBO show. But the television series just wrapped up, and while we wait to see if Martin delivers another book, the audiobooks give you a way to revisit the series. The world George R. R. Martin creates is so expansive, and it is storytelling at its best. The audiobook recreates this world and brings it to life in a way all its own.
An Ocean of Minutes is Thea Lim’s debut novel. I didn’t hear a lot of buzz about it when it came out and wasn’t familiar with her writing. Had I not come across the audiobook, I would have missed out on this unique novel. Lim’s novel is set in a world where a deadly flu has swept through America, and people can pay for treatment for their loved ones by traveling to the future to work. It sounds wacky, but this story tackles grief, sacrifice, betrayal, and loss, and up until the last minutes, I was wrapped up in this alternate world. I’ve found that novels with significant world-building make good audiobooks, enhancing your ability to imagine a world different from our own.
East of Eden is one of my all-time favorite books. It is a massive story, both beautiful and brutal and so full of life and it made me realize the power of telling stories. When I wanted to experience this novel again, I turned to the audio version. Listening to Steinbeck’s novel lets you more fully appreciate the rhythm of his writing. East of Eden clocks in at just over 25 hours. If you aren’t ready for that kind of commitment, try Steinbeck’s much shorter nonfiction book, Travels with Charley, narrated by Gary Sinise.