Audiobooks, plus Miniscule

by John Holbo on October 27, 2007

We recently moved and I now have a long commute. I’ve discovered that I greatly enjoy expending enforced bus-time, listening to audiobooks. I’ve also discovered that Librivox is a rich source of free listening material. They are slouching toward the 1000 title mark, with 1000 volunteer readers doing the work. All the products are released into the public domain. I just finished the second half of Dracula – which was, I must say, touch and go in some chapters. A few of the readers were quite good; the lady with the Indian accent did not – as I feared – make van Helsing sound like Apu. She was quite good. (But there were some terrible van Helsings in the bunch, all the same. I could add to Henry’s post about bad accents, but it seems cruel to mock earnest volunteers, as opposed to overpaid Hollywood actors.)

Modeling myself on the aurally self-improving Mr. Boffin, I’ve started in on Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend. (Belle, like Mrs. Boffin, is more a ‘high-flier in fashion’, you understand, and correspondingly less inclined to listen to audiobooks.) I have got up to chapter 9, and the quality of the readers so far has ranged from commendably adequate to downright excellent. (Someone named Alan Chant is doing Boffin as Wallace, from Wallace and Gromit. Which works just fine.)

Does anyone have any special recommendations, audiobook-wise? I’m not averse to paying for good stuff, although so far I am gratified by the availability of high-quality free stuff.

In other late Saturday night news, the 3-year old certifies this as the funniest video in the world. It is pretty funny.



Donna 10.27.07 at 2:40 pm

“Call of the Wild” by Jack London. I don’t know who reads it; I got it from the library years ago. But it’s quite good and very moving.


The Next to Last Pope 10.27.07 at 3:30 pm

I recommend Robert Greenberg’s Teaching Company lectures. I’ve just finished “How to Listen to and Understand Great Music.” Unless you’re already very well up on music history and theory you’ll learn quite a lot. It’s expensive, but your library probably has it.


Teresa 10.27.07 at 3:37 pm

Try Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett. I downloaded it off, and it was one of their 100 essentials. It’s offered at a discounted price now, too (somewhere around 15.oo, I think). The Misadventures of Maude March made me laugh aloud, even though it’s a children’s book — the narrator is wonderful.


Total 10.27.07 at 3:50 pm

The Terry Pratchett Disc Worlds work very well as audiobooks.


Flippanter 10.27.07 at 4:18 pm

The John Rain series of assassin thrillers, by Barry Eisler, have sustained me through many a morning at the gym, though sustained exposure does tend to make one (and by “one,” I mean “me”) examine the necks of people using the elliptical trainers for longer than the statutory thirty minutes for potential breaking and choking angles.


Bruce Baugh 10.27.07 at 4:30 pm

I have a long-standing subscription with Audible, who sell audiobooks for download, and am really, really happy with them.

In fiction, at least, just about anything read by George Guidall is going to be a pleasure. The reader for the unabridged version of Children of Hurin turned out to be Christopher Lee, of all people, and Lee reading Tolkien was, well, wonderful. Simon Winchester does his own readings for his books on Krakatoa, the dictionary, and what not, and is also thoroughly enjoyable company.


rd 10.27.07 at 4:46 pm

Patrick Tull’s versions of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin books are very good.


Bloix 10.27.07 at 4:54 pm

Since you’re on Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities is a great listen. And Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy is better heard than read. All the Pretty Horses will knock your socks off.

But for me the all time flat-out and going away best audio books are the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian (“Master and Commander” and the rest), read by Patrick Tull. Avoid the other readers – this is the gold standard of audiobooks. O’Brian’s mixture of derring-do, technical detail, historical accuracy and psychological insight is perfect for the degree of attention you can pay on a daily commute. The writing is lively, intelligent, amusing, and persuasive as to period and place.

And Patrick Tull has the most engaging voice of any reader I’ve come across. All he has to say is “Chapter One” and he has you in the palm of his hand.

There are twenty volumes and you can ration them- one every few months will keep you involved in the series for three or four years. And then you can listen to them again. I do.


SCM 10.27.07 at 4:58 pm

Le singe est dans l’arbre et l’araignee est sur le ballon!


Jim Gibbon 10.27.07 at 5:16 pm

When I wrote a brief post on LibriVox earlier this summer a reader left a link to his recommended LibriVox recordings. I haven’t listened to any of those yet because I’m still working through a bunch of audiobooks I got from the public library, which I think is the ideal place to start.


George 10.27.07 at 5:35 pm

If you like Beckett:

Waiting for Godot on Naxos. Sean Barrett, David Burke, Terence Rigby, and Nigel Anthony.

Excellent. Stands up to repeated listenings. I never tire of it. Sample on Audible.

There’s a decent, albeit quirky, partial freebie reading of Beckett’s Watt here.


Ben Alpers 10.27.07 at 5:55 pm

I’m another longtime, satisfied Audible costumer.

Among my favorite audiobooks (in no particular order):

The Gormenghast trilogy (excellently read by Robert Whitfield).

Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential (read by Bourdain himself)

John Crowley’s The Solitudes (still under the title Aegypt…read by Crowley himself)

Jerry Lewis’s memoir Dean and Me (read by Stephen Hoye…total fluff, but fun nonetheless)

Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (read by Simon Prebble)

Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven (read by Scott Brick)

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (read by Rosalyn Landor)

Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (read by Campbell Scott)

Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (read by Scott Brick)

I’d also include Richard Rhodes’s Arsenals of Folly (read by Robertson Dean), which I’m currently in the middle of listening to.


ssss 10.27.07 at 6:19 pm

‘The Corrections’ and ‘I Am Charlotte Simmons’ are both available in great audiobook versions, brilliantly read.


Buce 10.27.07 at 6:27 pm

I’ve had a 90-mile commute for 27 yrs so I know a lot about audio books. Three thoughts:

1) There are quite a few that work very nicely in audio that I probably wouldn’t bother to read in papaer. Examples: John Mortimer (Rumple), Carl Hiassen. But also Kingsley’s Westward Ho, and (?) Tom Brown’s Schooldays.
2) Correspondingly, there are some that just don’t work at all on audio. Example: Santayana’s Reason in Art.
3) There are several 19th C classics that I tackled in audio out of a sense of obligation, then went back and reread on paper. Example: most of Dostoevski.


fardels bear 10.27.07 at 6:48 pm

Librivox is wonderful indeed. Check out the Father Brown stories there. Martin Clifton does a very nice job.

I also get things from and have been enjoying the “literary detective” Thursday Next books by Jasper Fforde.

finally, I’ve been intrigued by:

The title is a bit of misnomer. Tho works are all public domain, and the sound quality for the free version is not good. Pay a little however, and you can download high quality sound files. They are all read by professionals so you avoid the hit-and-miss quality you find on librivox.


Kate Nepveu 10.27.07 at 7:24 pm

Second the Discworld recommendation, but only the ones narrated by Stephen Briggs.

Nth the Patrick Tull recommendations.

Douglas Adams reading his own work is very good.


Mark 10.27.07 at 7:35 pm

I once saw The Bible on audio book. Not so surprising, I know. The fun part was that it was read by James Earl Jones.

I didn’t have the chance to listen to it, but I’m sure the Hebraic law would be simply riveting read by Darth Vader.


Adam Roberts 10.27.07 at 9:06 pm

I wrote a brief post on LibriVox a little while ago on a website called … (not sure if you know of this site, John, worth checking out if you don’t) … The Valve. As I say there, the range of Conrad titles is pretty good, and Lord Jim exceptionally so. The Secret Agent was curate’s egg, but worth a go. I’m halfway through Typhoon, another excellent one, so far at any rate.


novakant 10.27.07 at 9:14 pm

That is very cute and well done, but I still think the funniest video is this one.


robert the red 10.27.07 at 10:47 pm

Librivox also has the Forsyte saga, which I’m listening to with fascination right now.


avagee 10.27.07 at 11:34 pm has quite a few PD texts (including dickens and other ‘edifying’ classics)in a format that can be read on any java enabled cell phone. Very good for commutes.


Norman David Gerre 10.28.07 at 1:42 am

N+1thing the Patrick O’Brian books, but most of those rollicking historical adventure novels (Sharpe etc.) work well in audio too.

Hard to make recommendations without knowing what kind of books you’re after, though.

For dysfunctional-family comedy, all of David Sedaris’s books are fantastic to listen to — not a surprise, since he got famous reading them aloud before they were ever in book form.

For historical mystery, I can recommend the Elizabeth Peters Amelia Peabody books, read by Barbara Rosensomething. Delightfully snooty.

Alternate history/fantasy: the Naomi Novik Temeraire books, read by Simon Vance. (Napoleonic Wars + dragons.)

James Marsters (Spike from Buffy) does a good job reading the Dresden Files urban fantasy series, but it’s not until the third or fourth book that they get really good.

Anything by Neil Gaiman. Lenny Henry’s Anansi Boys was particularly good, but Gaiman is great when he reads his own stuff too.


John Holbo 10.28.07 at 3:19 am

Hey Adam R., I guess I missed that one. Don’t know what my excuse is, but I’m sure I had one at the time.


Warren Terra 10.28.07 at 4:16 am

It’s not readily downloadable (although there are workarounds, albeit of questionable legality), and so it’s not great for commuters and the like, but if you are staying close to your internet access you might try BBC Radio 4 or BBC 7; they do a lot of radio drama, and everything they broadcast is streamed for seven days afterwards.

For example, if you like Dickens, they did a four hour full-cast adaptation of Hard Times last week (Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4) and are doing a five-hour adaptation of The Mystery of Edwin Drood next week.


astrongmaybe 10.28.07 at 4:35 am

Not quite audiobooks, but check out Pete Seeger’s “Radio Ballads”, from the mid-1950s, available on the BBC Radio 2 website. They’re among the most interesting and affecting radio documentaries I’ve heard – mixing interview footage taken among various subcultures (miners, fishermen, polio victims, etc.) with specially-written music and songs. (There are some contemporary versions commissioned for the 50th anniversary on the site, but they can’t hold a candle to the originals.)

And Glenn Gould’s Solitude Trilogy of radio pieces is enduringly impressive:

(forgive the messy linking)


Nabakov 10.28.07 at 1:46 pm

John Cleese reading The Screwtape Letters.

Regardless of what you think of Lewis’s underlying message, Cleese is brilliant at rendering the tone of infernal bureacrats.


Nabakov 10.28.07 at 1:47 pm


shtove 10.28.07 at 2:48 pm

#19 – Novakant, that’s pretty good, but is this better?


John Emerson 10.28.07 at 10:54 pm

My loaner 3-year-old likes these two P.Z. Meyers-approved videos:

Octopus catches shark

Octopus squeezes through 1″ hole.

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