Introducing… Audiobooks

In December, the FutureBook conference – Europe’s largest publishing conference – saw much dispute and open possibility about where we’re headed. Everyone was agreed on one particular trajectory in book publishing, though: the audiobook sector has recently exploded, and will continue to grow enormously in 2016 and beyond.

Two main factors are behind this. The first is technology, which has finally caught up with the modern user’s needs and expectations. Downloading audiobooks is now as simple as downloading music; once on your iPod or phone, they can be taken with you on commutes and jogs. This is a huge game-changer; today, readers no longer have to choose between print and audio, as the two formats can be used differently. I risk caricaturing myself every time I walk from a bus stop with a dog-eared paperback held out in front of me. (Seriously.) I also go for an hour-long walk every day. As I’ve come to embrace audio, I’ve discovered that the walk (which I’m bound to by my physiotherapist, come rain, shine or roaring gale) passes a lot quicker with a narrative in my ear than with music. It provides impetus to the walk and allows me to cheat time by squeezing in some extra reading. Audible, the Amazon audiobook service which has pioneered the mainstreaming of the format, markets itself on precisely this basis: in complete contrast with the clunky CDs of yore, audiobooks can now fit seamlessly into your life.

This brings me to the second shift that’s occurred: perception. Less than ten years ago, a study found that over 50% of book-buyers had negative attitudes toward audio, considered “talking books for the blind” and for children, and widely regarded as overpriced. In 2015 more than ever before, audiobooks were recognised both as a reading format for a general audience and as an art form. Pretty much any A-list actor you might name has lent their voice to an audiobook – Imelda Staunton reads Julia Donaldson classics like The Gruffalo; Helena Bonham Carter has been the voice of Anne Frank; Tim Curry narrates A Series of Unfortunate Events; Susan Sarandon has done the Homeric epics. It’s a unique creative exercise for publisher and narrator alike, and more rewarding than ever now that it’s finally coming to the world’s attention. The industry is now running to keep up, with publishers developing audiobook charts and establishing their own podcasts (Penguin has an excellent Desert Island Discs-style series hosted by Richard E. Grant of Withnail fame, available through iTunes).

A whole universe is developing around the audiobook market, though a lot of it was already there beyond our sight – did you know, for instance, that audiobooks are eligible at the Grammies? The Best Spoken Album Award has been won by everyone from Michael J. Fox to Bill Clinton via Malala. The Audies annually reward both original audio works and adaptations of fiction and non-fiction. The interaction of the audiobook with the awards culture embedded into the print book, film and music industries also raises interesting artistic questions. Who should receive the award – the publisher, the author, the narrator or some combination? The 2015 Grammies credited only those who read, not those who wrote, the nominated titles, for instance. The collaborative nature of the audiobook forces us to concede that it’s a form separate from printed books.

For this, we have more or less one work to thank: Serial. If you haven’t listened to Serial, you may have switched off the Internet in recent years. Just kidding – I only discovered it this summer. But if you haven’t listened to Serial, go and do so right now. This podcast, a production of veteran groundbreaking radio show This American Life, essentially single-handedly turned podcasts mainstream. The second season has just launched, but the first season, which has been downloaded over 68 million times, is now an established cultural phenomenon. It follows journalist Sarah Koenig’s probing of a Baltimore murder case from the ’90s, in which a young man was convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend, on what comes to seem startlingly little concrete evidence. It is brilliantly pieced together, compellingly narrated and admirably non-partisan, a fascinating and, yes, addictive piece of long-form reportage. It sought to prove that there was an audience for episodic storytelling, and for the oral tradition which defines our species.

Though Serial showed me and the world what a podcast could be, I’ve also listened to plenty since that have fallen well short of the mark. A flimsy premise, a particular American twang, a misjudged duration-to-content ratio – any and all of these things are enough to ruin a podcast for me. (Sorry, Americans; I just can’t help it. One of Serial‘s greatest merits, for me, is Sarah Koenig’s fantastically soft-spoken yet crystal-clear voice.) Audio in itself is neither greater nor lesser than print. So I started to give my listening-reading approach some thought: what kinds of stories would, like that told in Season One of Serial, work particularly well in audio format? Here are a few examples I’ve come up with.

1) Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens; narrated by Anton Lesser

As I’ve discussed previously, my appreciation of Dickens came late in life, so I do sympathise with you as you cry out, “Not Dickens! Go back to historical fiction recommendations!” But hear me out. How long might it take you to read the Dickensian-length sentences of Nickleby (1839) in Penguin Classic form? Well, if you put it on your iPod, you can read it in seven hours and forty minutes. More than that, Dickens is perfect for audiobook. These are novels more or less entirely character-driven, and Lesser, an actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company, brings them to life far better than the voice in your head could. He also draws out the comedy in Dickens with skill, helpfully signposting the novel’s shifts in tone even if they’re halfway through a two-page paragraph that you might have been skimming. And, of course, Dickens’ novels were actually written to be serial, published periodically in newspapers before they were brought out in a single print volume.


“In journeys, as in life, it is a great deal easier to go down hill than up.”


2) Dreams from my Father, by Barack Obama

I went for this one for two reasons: autobiography is surely a category of book that can benefit from the personification of audio; and all the more so when the author has a voice as easy to listen to as Obama’s. This is the US president’s own account of his upbringing and first steps into politics, relating his journey towards understanding of his barely-known father and of his cultural and spiritual inheritance from all the members of his various families. It’s refreshing to get to know Obama as a man; he wrote the book (1995) when his claim to fame was as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, and added a new preface once he was the only black Congressman of his term, as Senator for Illinois. He speaks (occasionally in accents) with ruthless honesty about American race relations on personal and societal levels, and about his own foibles and doubts, with an openness and questioning thoughtfulness that perhaps couldn’t have emerged from the writings of an incumbent president.

Even had he never reached the White House, though, Obama’s story is more interesting than ‘first black president’. His father left when he was young, leaving him growing up in the shadow of a hero-parent strangely romanticised for him by his white mother; he spent four formative childhood years in Indonesia, homeland of his stepfather; when he finally went to Kenya to meet his grandmother, aunts and half-brothers, he had to find his place amidst a crowd of relatives resultant from his father’s and grandfather’s multiple wives. Obama’s memoir is multicultural not because he is mixed race, but because he presents, with vivacity and humility, a whole chorus of voices. I encourage you to discover them through his, because even if you disagree with his politics, he’s a fine writer expressing the truth of his experience – in an eternally listenable voice.


“The boarded-up homes… teenage girls feeding potato chips to crying toddlers, the discarded wrappers tumbling down the block – all of it whispered painful truths.”


3) Under Milk Wood, by Dylan Thomas; narrated by Richard Burton

I’ve offered you an audiobook chosen for its performance value, and one chosen for the personal nature of its story. My final recommendation is not an adaptation, but a piece of original audio literature. Under Milk Wood (1954) was written as a radio drama. It narrates, simply, a day in the life of a Welsh fishing village – its gossip, its martial disputes, its child’s play and its eccentric yet ordinary characters’ secret thoughts and dreams – from sun up to sun down. As such, it is a quiet affair, partly from the viewpoint of a blind fisherman, with little soundtrack but the waves and gulls. I chose to listen to it on successive mornings in bed, before anyone else in the house was awake.

Many of Milk Wood‘s wonderful, unforgettable phrases had already been in my head since childhood, for my mother used to quote them at me. Thomas was a magical wordsmith with a unique way of turning a phrase; so was Richard Burton, whose performances drew heavily on the relish with which he wrapped his tongue around his lines. It’s an ideal partnership; I’ve had few more exquisite listening experiences than a soft Welsh voice in the half-light of morning, uttering, “the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea.”


“Lord Cut-Glass, in his kitchen full of time… listens to the voices of his sixty-six clocks, one for each year of his loony age, and watches, with love, their black-and-white moony loudlipped faces tocking the earth away…”


I hope to have convinced some of you to give audiobooks a try – any of these three titles would make a great start. Alternatively, few voices are as rich, powerful and enthralling as Maya Angelou’s, while Janis Ian has blended song and narration in the audiobook version of her autobiography, Society’s Child (2012). Both have won Grammies. Much though I hate to vaunt Amazon in any capacity, Audible’s free trial will allow you one audiobook at no cost, and if you tell them you’re cancelling the membership because it’s too expensive (there’s a drop-down list), you may find they give you a second one free, too. Most audiobooks are available on iTunes for between £1 and £6, and charity shops (particularly Oxfam bookshops) often sell CDs cheaply, which are easily ripped into your media player. Go forth, and tell me what you think!

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