Should you ever get stuck in a five-hour traffic jam with a grouchy spouse who SAID you should have left earlier, you will need a powerful distraction to preserve any semblance of harmony. You will need the audiobook of Seabiscuit. That was my experience, anyway. Listening to the incredible story of the little-race-horse-that-could was simply more compelling than discussing just whose fault this was.
That experience sold me on audiobooks, and I’ve been a huge fan ever since. Especially for night-time car trips, which fly by when you’re sitting in the dark listening to someone with an evocative voice tell a story. It has to be the right kind of story, though. Not every good book works when read aloud. And some books that you wouldn’t want to curl up with make great listens.
Here are a few things I’ve figured out:
The book has to be well-written. An airport page-turner that I’d happily take on a long flight doesn’t work as an audiobook. You can’t skim; bad writing seems worse.
Unabridged, if possible. You make an emotional investment in the story, so why cut it short? Also, just try following the plot of a John Le Carre novel that has been abridged. Those seemingly extraneous passages contain vital information.
The reader’s voice can’t be annoying. This is obvious, and it’s a recommendation for buying through an online service like iTunes or Audible, where you can listen to a snippet before you buy.
Whatever the format, audiobooks can be expensive, and they’re something you only use once. So I also look for them at yard sales and library exchanges. Ebay is another good source.
We’ve had some misses in our quest for good audiobooks, but we’ve struck gold too – sometimes in the most unexpected places. The audiobooks recommended below are a pretty random list, but each entertained us for many hours. Any additions to the list?
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
I’d never have had the patience to sit down and read Michael Chabon’s novel about comic-book artists and golems and amazing, magical feats, but it was enthralling to listen to.
The Killer Angels
A Civil War buff I’m not, but the audiobook of Michael Shaara’s novel brings the familiar cast of characters vividly to life. You can almost smell the gunpowder.
Samuel Pepys Diary
Don’t be put off if you encountered a version of this in high school; probably it left out the racy parts. Pepys’s trenchant observations about life in seventeenth-century London are hilarious, especially in Kenneth Branaugh’s marvelous reading.
Listening to Jeremy Irons’s Humbert Humbert made me understand Lolita better than I had when I read the book. Although the novel is narrated by a supremely charming and articulate pedophile, the author makes it abundantly clear in the end just how despicable a character he is.
This one’s a real sleeper, though it was made into the movie October Sky. I’m not even sure why I picked up Homer Hickam Jr.’s memoir of small-town life in Coalville, West Virginia, but it’s a unanimous favorite, one of those stories you wish would go on forever. There is nothing like the profound relaxation that comes over you when you are in the hands of a master storyteller.
And, of course, Seabiscuit.