A Few Words About Audio Books and Readers

Audio books are great for providing entertainment for those weary of just sitting in traffic and listening to the woes of the world on news radio, bored with the nattering talking heads mouthing the same opinions over and over; or crazy from the popular songs that you just can’t get out of your head because that’s all the radio is playing these days. Audio books fill the bill and are especially great if you are on a long car trip, alone or with your family. Over the years a reader’s voice can become like an old friend.

Oakland Marker 376

Not going anywhere for a while? Try an audio book!
Image © Andy Field, 2002

Professional book readers can make or break a story. Most readers are actors, some very well-known film and TV performers, and others from the stage and regional theater. Some have made quite a lucrative profession out of reading books and are just plain excellent. Oft-lauded readers include Jim Dale, who has read the whole Harry Potter series, and Simon Vance, who brought the Swedish characters in Steig Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy to life. They excel at providing just the right voices to match the various characters.

I recently had to return a CD to the library without finishing it. I could not get into the Kate Burton version of Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta, as she just could not portray the characters as distinctly as Kate Reading’s interpretation of the voices of Kay, Benson, Lucy and Marino. It was making me crazy because I could never tell which character was speaking. So, listeners, be warned! Sometimes there are two different versions of the same book from different audio producers and with different readers. Also, be sure to choose the unabridged version of the audio book or you won’t get the full story.

Another audio book problem can be the author’s deciding to read her/his own novels. Some are better than others, and some much worse. One of my all-time favorite authors is Harlan Coben. He decided to read his comeback novel in the Myron Bolitar series, Promise Me, and it was such a disappointment. He just could not give voice to his great characters–Myron, Win, and Esperanza–the way that Jonathan Marosz, Scott Brick, or Steven Weber have done for other titles in this series.

When I recently found out Jane Green was reading her own story, Another Piece of My Heart, my own heart sank. Green’s chick-lit has morphed over her last few books into women’s fiction about more serious subjects. This story is about the joys and sorrows of a stepmother who wants a child of her own, but must make the best of it with her husband’s children from a previous marriage. However, the teenage daughter just hates her. Listening, at first, it was hard to adjust to Green’s very British accent speaking for a very American family. But she pulled it off! Without doing voices per se, she knew the characters so well that she imbued each with personality and passion. A job well done for an author/reader.

Sometimes a story is just confusing on its own, and the best of readers can have problems. An example of this is The Expats, by Chris Pavone. Reader Mozhan Marno portrays the story of a young couple who moves to Europe when the husband accepts a position as a bank security guru, and the wife leaves behind her secret career as a CIA spy/assassin. Her suspicious nature leads her to doubt every aspect of their lives together. I told my friend, who recommended this audio version, that the book was like Pavone wrote the story on index cards and tossed them up in the air. Time shifts constantly: to the distant past, the recent past, days ago, and now. People, locations, and events are in flux, and it is almost impossible to hear from the reader’s tone where we are in this complex tale. I stuck with it, though, and was happy I did.

Here are three other recent audio books I heartily recommend that would be great for a road trip. The readers are excellent and keep these very different stories moving along.

Sophie Kinsella’s laugh-out-loud I’ve Got Your Number, read by a gravelly-voiced, expressive Jayne Entwistle, is the story of a bride-to-be who appropriates an abandoned cell phone when hers is stolen, so she can continue to plan her wedding. She soon insinuates herself into the life of a handsome, successful businessman and his corporate shenanigans.

Lisa Gardner’s Catch Me is read by steady Kirsten Potter. It’s the latest in the D.D. Warren series where the Boston PD detective is Catch Meapproached for help by a woman convinced that she will be murdered in four days. As the clock ticks on this suspenseful story, the women desperately try to identify the potential killer.

Rolins Devil ColonyFinally, for those who love complex thrillers with a historical twist, try James Rollins’s The Devil Colony, read by Peter Jay Fernandez. Here the expressive reader sustains the plot’s actions that jump from location to location and–incredibly–concern the Great Seal of the United States, the Anasazi Indians, the lost tribes of Israel, Mormon settlers in the west, and nanotechnology! It’s a typical roller coaster of a story in Rollins’s excellent Sigma Force series.

Some final hints about audio book readers: if you listen to a reader you like, you can always check the catalog under their names as a keyword search (editor’s note: an author search works too). Sometimes you will stumble across other great stories that they have read. Or you can check out what readers have won the annual Audie awards, And remember, audio books come in several different formats: CDs, downloadable e-audio, and Playaways. Some older stories are still available as cassette tapes as well (a different editor’s note: Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh no longer carries cassettes, but we can borrow them from other libraries for you). Choose the version that best suits your needs.



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125 responses to “A Few Words About Audio Books and Readers

  1. lectorconstans

    Not just audiobooks: college courses. I’ve been dealing with “The Great Courses” for some years (that’s their website). They have courses in video, audio, and downloads in each format.

    One of their best professors – and one of their best voices – is Daniel Robinson

    He has courses in philosophy and history; he has a rich, deep baritone voice , and knows how to use it to maximum effect. I don’t think I’d recommend it for driving, though – you’re liable to get so involved in the subject you lose track of the road.

    Maybe the rule should be “Don’t learn and drive”.

    • We’ve got those, too! Many of our patrons swear by them. I’ll have to check out Mr. Robinson, as I have an interest in philosophy… thanks for the suggestion!

      Leigh Anne

  2. My dad, who is visually impaired, recently started reading audiobooks, and he loves it. He listened to Khaled Hosseini reading The Kite Runner, and said he did a wonderful job of reading his own work. But he also felt that the reader for a Thousan Splendid Suns did her job perfectly.

  3. journalplace

    The unfinished library audios are a blessing. You stop the audio, drop it in the return, and move on in listening space.

  4. I thoroughly enjoyed “Angela’s Ashes,” read by the author, Frank McCourt. Whenever I mention the book to anyone, the usual response is a moan of, “Oh, it’s so depressing!” That seems to especially be the sentiment of anybody who has read it. But I got a completely different impression! Sure, the guy had a miserable, poverty-stricken childhood, with death and disease and drunkenness all around him. But Frank McCourt’s voice brought out the HUMOR in those experiences, and he frequently had me laughing out loud! I highly recommend this audio book to anyone, even (and maybe especially) if they’ve already read the book.

    • Thanks for the comment, and the recommendation! Would you believe, I still haven’t read this book? Now I’m going to go see if we have it on Playaway…

      Leigh Anne

    • Sheila

      I forgot about that book. I had the exact same experience. I listened to it to and from the Jersey shore with my elderly mum, who was Irish and appalled by the family’s circumstances. But we did laugh aloud and I am so happy to have shared that experience with her before she passed.

  5. Very interesting post….I just don’t seem to be able to get on with audiobooks, I find my mind wonders too much and I don’t take it in the same way I do with a book. I’ve never seemed to enjoy the reader’s voice either when I’ve tried listening.

  6. thank you for the audio book recommendations. living in the middle-of-nowhere like I do, I should really pick this hobby up.

  7. Lately I’ve been listening to Stephen Kings The Drawing Of The Three on audio after reading The Gunslinger. It just isn’t the same. I think you’re correct when you say that a voice can make or break a good story. The voice of Roland just wasn’t what I had imagined once I heard this particular book reader. I would love to record my book in spoken audio, as my one cousin is blind and has to settle for listening. Perhaps there’s an untapped market of book readers out there? Nice post, thanks for sharing!

  8. Oh man! I am a big advocate of Audio Books when I travel alone. I love the A Song of Fire and Ice series by George R. Martin, and typically like the audible books that are out there. However the rendition of A Dance with Dragons is so HARD to listen to. The way the male reader attempts the female voice is horrendous. On a positive note though, I am throughly impressed with the reader they have chosen for the Sookie Stackhouse Series by Charlaine Harris, and have listened to 5 of the books. She is incredible.

  9. Mad Queen Linda

    I have long been singing the praises of audio books, from listening to The Perfect Storm through miles and miles of the Big Empty in Texas, to laughing over the gangsters in The Thin Man, and weeping on the treadmill at the gym listening to The Longest Walk. We listened to several books by reader David Case, who we envisioned in a velvet smoking jacket and slippers, a couple silky-haired hounds dozing near his slippered feet as he sat in a study with tall windows and lined with bookshelves. Edward Herrmann, of Dodge car advertisement fame, could read the 10 Commandments and make them sound reasonable. Congrats on fresh press and 3 cheers for the audio book plug.

  10. I’ve found a shortage of fun short stories in audio form… I like something I can finish in about a half hour. Librivox does have some great Chesterton or Arsene Lupin stories, but the readers are all volunteers, so the quality varies.

    • Adam, define fun? I’m idly browsing the catalog and finding a lot of short story collections, including classic authors, but would “fun” be MORE like Chesterton/Lupin, or something different?

      Leigh ‘Anne

      • Oh, I’m sorry… I didn’t mean to imply a failure on the part of your illustrious organization, just a shortage in the audiobook world in general. But yeah, those stories are a lot of fun… humerous short stories will twist endings are the best.

        • It is more difficult to find short stories as audiobooks. Just think of it this way – publishers only produce books that they’ll be able to sell. And then, since since there’s an even smaller market for audiobooks, they only produce audio versions of books that are practically guaranteed to sell – this is why we end up with tons of bestsellers on our shelves and hardly any short stories. It’s just not cost-effective for them.

          I try to get around this when I can by dealing with smaller publishers (there are some that make their business solely by publishing audiobooks that the big guys reject), but it’s nearly impossible to get anything older that’s not already considered a “classic.” Heck, when I went on a Lupin reading kick a few years ago, I had a hard time even getting my hands on the books!

          – epic response from Amy, who buys audiobooks for the Main library

          • Yeah, that makes sense… So a lack of short stories is the fault of publishers who have to hawk entire anthologies.
            I expect that the internet might change that. It’s already shortening attention spans and promoting instant gratification, so short stories should benefit. And they’d be perfect for audio format, since most people have to commute about the length of a short story to work each day.
            I need to put together an official prediction for the future…

  11. You know what? In solemn commemoration of Nora Ephron’s passing (as a freelance humor writer myself, I must admit that she was my HERO), I think I’m going to try one of her audio books. You’ve inspired me … and I’ve had many friends tell me how great it is to hear her voice reading her books!

    Thanks for the reminder of how fun audio books can be…


  12. I totally agree with missandyparker.

  13. Good article Sheila, it’s great to remember that there are books on tape (or whatever format) still out there. I think a lot of people have abandoned their libraries and are only coming back with the rise of e-reader rentals (at least where I’m from this seems to be an argument for increased library activity) and the audio book could keep them coming back. I remember as a kid listening to a James Harriet short story collection “When Pigs Fly” with the best reader ever (can’t remember his name) and I was heartbroken when I lost one of the four cassettes. I would listen to that series dozens of times a year! I think I might go and get some audio books, especially with the ease of an iPod.

    Although, personally, I like the feel of the book in my hands… ;)

  14. Very true. The reader can make or break a story when it comes to audio books. Tim Curry’s voice in The Series of Unfortunate Events audio books is by far the best experience I have had. He really captures the tone of the book.

  15. Stephen King reads his own “LT’s Theory of Pets” on a 1-CD audiobook. It’s funny and dark and his Maine-accented voice adds to the personality of the tale-teller “LT” and to the setting of the tale being told. For me, the story almost becomes secondary to hearing King’s voice and the evocation of a working-class Mainer abandoned after a troubled marriage. Almost.

  16. and for children too! My older son (two years old) can sit and turn the pages to the tone of the bell, following along with the story while we drive. Is is such a pleasure for us to hear the authors real voice! What a great post.

  17. Great post – I agree totally about the person voicing an audiobook being critical to your enjoyment. I am currently listening to one of my favourite books, “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson, and the author is excellent. He picks up the correct turns of phrase, and characterises people well. All in all, a delight to listen to on the train into Glasgow, or before sleep. One thing that really bothers me is when narrators have the microphone so close to them that you can hear them swallowing and smacking their lips. Because you are focusing your attention on one sense, it becomes more and more noticable, to the point where I find it difficult to continue. Oh, and hearing people turning the pages makes me want to shout as well… :-)

  18. Recently, I read Walter Lord’s “A night to remember” from an audio book. It was really a great experience. The reader whose name I don’t remember did a fantastic job.

  19. Really enjoyed this. Did not really think about how crucial the audio reading aspect is for audio books to succeed. Your point about the accent is of great interest to me because it raises the point about how multicultural books could/ should be read and how far books would need to maintain authenticity of accent to succeed.

  20. L. Palmer

    I work at a University and provide adaptive technology to students with disabilities. We use software to adapt e-books into audio books, but it’s still no substitute for the art of storytelling. It’s a lot harder to get swept away by a Siri-like voice reading classic Greek literature.
    Thanks for the post. I’ll have to look into more audio books. Maybe I can make suggestions to the students I work with.

  21. I’m currently listening to an audiobook of Matthew Stover’s Revenge of the Sith, narrated by Jonathan Davis. It’s significantly better than the movie. But my alltime favorite audiobook has got to be the unabridged version of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, read by Rob Inglis. He reads it in a perfect British-storyteller voice, and he sings all the songs. Even pronounces the Elvish correctly.

  22. Thanks for the post! It’s like a crash course on audio books and readers.

  23. Thanks for the post !!
    Useful topic about audio books and readers.

  24. This post suited exactly what I needed about audio books and readers. My blind friend has been asking where and exactly what books she would get from these audio books/readers.

    I will refer her to this page (she has a text-to-speech program) so that it may help her.

    Thank you very much!

  25. I love listening to audio books and so does my whole family. Thanks for the information!

  26. Great post! You’re right, the reader makes a huge difference. My library in Ontario has online audiobooks but I have yet to find a reader that I like. I’ll definitely check out some of your suggestions!


  27. For people like myself, audiobooks have been a life-changer (and I say that with no exaggeration). My first audiobook (as in, narrated by me) was published earlier this week. But more importantly, audibooks have enabled me to read much more than I would have if I were forced to rely solely on print.

    Love the narrators you mentioned, particularly the very versatile Simon Vance, who also does the James Bond books (and does them exceptionally well).

    Another unbelievably gifted narrator is Bronson Pinchot. Yeah, that Bronson Pinchot.

    • Congratulations on your first audiobook! May we ask which one it is?

      Definitely going to have to look into Pinchot now – thank you!

      Leigh Anne

      • Thank you! I definitely appreciate your interest, but in the interests of keeping my blogging identity separate from my professional one (if a c.v. of exactly one book can be called a ‘profession’), let me just say that it’s a non-fiction political book.

        Re: Mr. Pinchot, I first encountered him reading “Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War.” I hadn’t paid attention to the narrator’s identity, but was floored by the reader’s ability to capture so many different accents and dialects, particularly African-American dialects, which can be VERY hard to pull off without sounding like a caricature. When I saw that BP was the narrator, I sought out other books by him. He’s better with male characters than with female (although I like his women), and superb with American accents.

  28. I tried to listen to audiobooks while doing gardenwork and such, but I haven’t yet found a reader I could stand. Part of that is probably that I’m Austrian, and most readers are German, and I don’t like their accent. (I can’t even watch movie adaptions in German if I’ve read the book before, because I’ve always “heard” the characters speaking in Austrian German in my head.) The one exception were the Harry Potter series my brother listened to.

  29. My grandpa’s brother had very bad eyes, and I always wondered as a kid: how come he’s so well-read, and knows so much? Turned out he was swallowing audiobooks, one by one.

  30. Like it, would try later.

  31. I tried to get into Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol audio book, but I kept falling asleep while listening (not while driving!). I need to read with the voices in my head as the characters develop.

    • That makes sense – I do the same thing, though I did order “Angela’s Ashes” today, on a Playaway based on a recommendation, above. We shall see…thanks for reading, and for your comment!

      Leigh Anne

  32. I’ve had mostly good experiences with audio books, but don’t like the abridged versions because unlike what your post says, I very rarely listen in my car, but rather read along with the audio in either the hardcopy or Kindle edition.
    I have a subscription to Audible.com and find that to be wonderful (although the public libraries have a good free selection too) to keep on my Kindle.
    Sometimes I just look for who is reading the book for my next selection rather than a title itself. My recommendations for readers would be David Ogden Stiers, Tim Curry, and David Hyde Pierce.

  33. I particularly like audo biography. Generally they are read by the writer if they are autobiography. “Decison Points” however was not read by George W. Bush, but another person whose voice sounded remarkably like Bush. I also am chained to Large Type or audio books due to visual disability. However, Kindle can change the type font to large enough to comfortably read. I like library loans the best, however. It is silly not to borrow . Most of my Kindle books are free, or cheap, cheap, cheap!

  34. Great post! My husband and I have listened to Jim Dale perform all of the Harry Potter books at least three times – he is amazing! I have an hour drive to and from work and am always listening to audio books. I look forward to checking out some of your suggestions!

  35. Agree…great post…informative and definitely worth the read. Thank you!

  36. Interesting topic. I think publishers should hire more qualified audio book readers. Sometimes, I heard computer generated ones and it was way too different from the authors’ way of expressing the story or topic.

    On the otherhand, I still enjoy visual and paper books.

  37. Joe Labriola

    I usually prefer a good npr podcast, but audio books are great when you’re gonna be on the road for a long long while.

  38. From the other side of the pond, and for children as well as adults, Martin Jarvis reading any of Richmal Crompton’s Just William books is an absolute treat. The fabled British sense of humour is a bonus, and I say that as a Dutch Australian … writing from Brasil. Thanks for an interesting post!

  39. Thank you for your post about audiobooks. I’ve been listening to librivox.org books in the public domain through the audiobooks app. Love it! But there are certain voices that I cannot abide and I like to look up the reader when possible to see if it is read by a favorite. Thanks!

  40. I agree! Audio books can be very enjoyable, but I’ve also had to stop listening because the voice just didn’t fit or I couldn’t understand them. Jim Dale does an amazing job! I’ve listening to the Harry Potter books many times.

  41. I’ve been listening to The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (I think I’ve remembered the name right) and it is excellent. If you need a good one for your next book, I can highly recommend this.

  42. Reblogged this on Jess Witkins' Happiness Project and commented:
    The Guilty Pleasure Guide to Selecting the Right Audio Book!

    Some of my favorite guilty pleasure ways to spend the day include books, or audio books, and LIBRARIES! On this recently Freshly Pressed blog, the librarian bloggers of Eleventh Stack give us their tried and true recommendations for a perfect audio book. And they recommend my DFW Con pal, James Rollins! Woohoo!

    What are your favorite audio books?

  43. Great post! You are definitely correct that a reader can make or break a story…there are some great and some terrible. I typically listen to audiobooks at work to drown out chatter or on long road trips (they keep me awake on my motorcycle)!

  44. I haven’t yet tried audiobooks, but I keep thinking I should since I walk two miles to work and then two miles home every day…thanks for pushing me in the right direction! Cheers!

  45. Very informative and well-written article, more so than what we get on typical blogs. The librarian sensibility shows, and I appreciate it!

  46. Tim Curry’s performance on “The Series of Unfortunate Events” audiobooks is not to be missed!

  47. Oh my God! I was trying to listen to Stephen King’s “On writing” and the reader was so slow and annoyed the hell out of me. I finally found it as an e-book and now I’m happy.

  48. That’s really surprising that you’d find the very author of the book reading his own work just… not convincing. I never experienced that, as I don’t really spend much time listening to audio books, but that quite surprised me.

  49. The best audiobook I listened to was Jerry Spinelli’s “Stargirl” as read by John Ritter.

  50. Congrats on the Freshly Pressed!

    The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher is narrated by James Marsters (of Buffy the Vampire fame) and he does a wonderful job!

  51. Reblogged this on CWC – Berkeley Marketing and commented:
    How to pick a voice for an audio book. This reblogged post is food for thought

  52. I always listen to audio books while driving. I’ve been doing it for decades, and it has helped thousands of miles to slip under the wheels without noticing the time spent on the road.

  53. I only tried an audio book once, with Franz Kafka’s “The Castle”. I gave up after 10 minutes. I couldn’t concentrate.
    I stick to reading, but I download interesting podcasts on my MP3 for walks or runs. I download NPR-like stuff about politics, history, philosophy, literature. These things are shorter and easier to concentrate on. Or if I fail to concentrate, not that much is lost.

  54. reading books is easier and faster for me but I like listening to books in order to improve my auditory learning ability. I listen to lectures from the Teaching company and I am a big fan of the Master & Commander series from Audible.com. >^..^<

  55. As an extremely visual person, I find listening to audio books nearly impossible. I tried listening to the Lord of the Rings in the car on the way to work but my attention span was short lived.

  56. I really enjoy Nigel Planer’s readings of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. His background in classic British comedy means he has the perfect charisma to embody the various vibrant characters in Pratchett’s novels.

    I’m also a very visual person and found it difficult to get into audiobooks at first, but being bedridden for a week soon helped me to get over that. On top of everything else I had constant headaches and reading was just out of the question. I’m now listening to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, and they’re just fantastic.

  57. Ha – this reminds me of a friend from college who got in a bit of trouble and had to read and record books onto cassette tapes for a visually impaired student for his community service hours. My friend said he would get bored just reading what was written, so he frequently changed the dialog to make it, ‘more exciting.’ I wonder what that poor student really ended up hearing?

  58. I’ve never listened to an audio book, except for the Bible. That was a good experience because the man who read it aloud had a good voice and was careful to read it “as is” without being dramatic. I was able to hear the entire Bible within months. Normally, it might take me several years to read it. Regarding fiction, it would be fun to hear my favorite author, Augusta Evans Wison, read out loud. the problem is she died in 1907 ! I like Victorian authors. I would like to find a modern-day author with a Victorian style of writing. Theoretically, it would seem best to hear the author’s own voice because the author can emphasize what is important to him or her. However, as you pointed out, having a good voice is essential. Even thinking about reading a book out loud makes me hoarse.

    • Thanks so much for your comment! I hear you on the hoarse throat – I hope they get lots of breaks when they read… I’m so glad you enjoyed the Bible as audio. Now we just need to find you a good contermporary author who writes in a Victorian style…hmmm…

      Leigh Anne

  59. I have been a reader since before I was in kindergarten (thank heavens for the rural Bookmobile service in my hometown!) and have welcomed both the audio options that I didn’t discover until they were on CDs, and the e-Readers, which my mother thinks are “non-books” (she also thinks we are going to start looking like alien-depictions since all we do is sit at computers and stare at the screen -smile-)

    My favorite author/reader of an audio book so far is Angela’s Ashes author, Frank McCourt. His Irish brogue added so much to the story and made it especially memorable for me. A close second is the audio book Freakonomics (and its sequel, Superfreakonomics) read by one of the authors (Dubnar). A great reader, or one who has something extra to give makes it all the better for me, as the listener/reader.

    As a patron of the many CLP sites around Allegheny County, I am eternally grateful for the robust collection of audio CD books they keep and the excellent web-based system in place for ordering from any library in the system. Thank you and keep up the great work!!

    • Thank you so much for the kind words, and the extended comment! We’re so glad you’re enjoying the services – it’s really gratifying to hear from our patrons what’s working.

      Leigh Anne

  60. Nice work! :D
    Congrats on being freshly pressed! :)

  61. This is very useful and i have searched this audio books few days ago. I will have to go to a long journey for attending a Financial seminar.

  62. kevin027596

    Thanks for the suggestions, as a long haul trucker I have enjoyed many hours with George Guidal as he reads Robin Cook or Vince Flynn, so many others as well. You are correct, the voice can ruin the book. I did not know I had options with the same book different voices. I my have to see if Kathy Reichs books fut that catagory because I love her books just not in audio format. Thanks for the recomendations, since I buy all my audio books I always look for reviews and opinions. Your opinion of Steven Weber, Scott Brick and Kirsten Potter are the same as mine and so now I will check out the others you mentioned. Thanks

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