On occasion, people tell me that they think listening to an audiobook is “cheating.” Cheating on what? Cheating on physical books?
It isn’t a competition. Sometimes you want to read a book, and sometimes you want to listen to a book. One of the great things about reading is you can’t do anything else while you’re reading. One of the great things about listening to audiobooks is you can do lots of other things at the same time. You can go for a walk, drive to Florida, do laundry, put together a jigsaw puzzle, play Candy Crush, lay on your bed in complete and total despair. If I play Candy Crush while I’m listening to Jessica Simpson’s memoir Open Book, I’m accomplishing something, even if that accomplishment is listening to Jessica Simpson’s memoir. (Which is a great audiobook, by the way.)
I’ve also found, over the years, that some books make satisfying listens and some just don’t. Sometimes you have a terrible narrator. Sometimes you have a complicated and terrible book. Novels that jump around in time and from character to character can be challenging to follow as audiobooks. That stuff can be easier to see spatially on the page.
But the best audiobooks are experiences to themselves. Rob Lowe’s memoir Stories I Only Tell My Friends is juicy enough, but when he reads it, he brings a whole other level of pathos. I often think about that beautiful moment when Patti Smith breaks into song, a cappella, on the audiobook of Just Kids. I might have found Matt Haig’s recent best-selling novel The Midnight Library a little bit treacly if I’d read it. But having Carey Mulligan read it to me was soothing and immersive and blissful and I didn’t want it to end, even if Carey Mulligan pronounces the type of wine “Syrah” in such a strange way that it takes a moment to figure out what in the hell she’s talking about.
The audiobook category is expanding every day, and I certainly can’t listen to everything. The goal of this monthly column is to steer us toward audiobooks that I hope will provide the best experiences, pop-culture value, and something to talk about on your next Zoom.
Length: 6 hrs 32 mins
Read by: Seth Numrich
Speed you can listen: at least 1.4x
Stephen King novels make great audiobooks. It’s hard not to lose yourself in them — they’re atmospheric with an energetic story drive. (The Mr. Mercedes trilogy, read by Will Patton, is pretty spectacular.) Later is filled with amusing winks to pop-culture iconography like The Sixth Sense. A kid sees dead people, and his mother’s lesbian lover (a dirty cop) co-opts him to do not-so-lawful things. I really savored every last drop of this, thanks, in part, to Numrich’s intense narration. (He was in AMC’s Turn and War Horse on Broadway.) One of Numrich’s most menacing vocal creations may sound like Gollum as played by Andy Serkis, but it also scared the bejesus out of me.
Length: 4 hrs 50 mins
Read by: Rebecca Lowman
Speed you can listen: at least 1.6x
Raising chickens is sort of, well, chic at the moment. Meghan Markle cemented the trend by introducing Oprah (and us) to Archie’s Chick Inn, her chicken coop in Montecito that is actually way nicer than my New York apartment. Polzin’s brisk and tender novel — both a how-to and how-not-to raise chickens while also making it through some of the tougher moments in life — makes for a particularly moving listen. In a moment of particular circumspection, I repeated the narrator reading the line, “The world is full of such mysteries … perhaps significant, perhaps not,” more than a few times. It’s true, right? Brood is not going to knock your socks off, but it is stirring and lovely.
Length: 10 hrs 16 mins
Read by: Sura Siu
Speed you can listen: at least 1.5x
Listening to literary fiction tends to be a crapshoot, but the slow unraveling of the mysteries of the strange new world in this grounded, futuristic novel keeps you engaged. It also helps that the book is essentially a monologue told from the perspective of a teenage robot. It’s never quite as powerful as Ishiguro’s 2005 dystopian Never Let Me Go, but who doesn’t appreciate a teenage robot monologue that brings pangs of nostalgia for the 1980s sitcom Small Wonder? Siu’s voices could be a little more distinct, and I might have preferred some stunt casting here. (Paging Carey Mulligan.) One other nitpick: Ishiguro names the humanlike machines in this book “Artificial Friends.” This abbreviates to “AF.” In a lot of ways, I’m glad that the meticulous author doesn’t recognize the adverbial relevance of “AF” in our culture in 2021, but it still sounds a bit peculiar when repeated in your ear.
Length: 9 hrs 11 mins
Read by: Thérèse Plummer
Speed you can listen: at least 1.6x or 1.7x
In-jokes about the publishing industry. Check. References to Lydia Davis and Renata Adler. Check. Wicked and ambitious female Ripley-like characters. Check. Andrews’s amusingly mean-spirited thriller ticks off a lot of boxes — so much so that I basically plowed through this unexpected, high-low of a surprise in one sitting. (Okay, while trying to make a dent in a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle.) Straightforward but twisty and slyly read by Plummer, an audio pro, it’s a really fun ride.
Length: 8 hrs
Read by: the author
Speed you can listen: at least 1.9x (Self-help books are repetitive.)
One of the reasons I listen to so many audiobooks is that I have trouble with boundaries. Headphones provide a shield from the outside world. People are always asking me for things, and I have a hard time saying no. To that end, I’m always looking to figure out how to make my boundaries less porous. Tawwab actually has some good, succinct advice, which she offers with a pleasant Southern twirl. Some of the takeaways that I hope to follow include: It’s okay to call out others for guilt-tripping you. Stop following people who look like they have everything together on social media. And, when friends call you to talk about their problems, ask if they just want you to listen or actually offer advice. It’s a little bit strange that Tawwab uses Vivian (Julia Roberts) from Pretty Woman as an example of someone with strong boundaries, but I totally agree that Sam I Am should’ve said “No” to the green eggs and ham a lot earlier.
A holdover from February …
Length: 7 hours, 38 minutes
Read by: the author
Speed you can listen: 1x
There’s something so meta about this audiobook that it ends up being kind of a knockout. It’s about an actor like Ethan Hawke performing as Hotspur in a Broadway production of Henry IV. Hawke actually did this in 2003, opposite Kevin Kline as Falstaff and Audra McDonald as Lady Percy. This all the while he’s divorcing his pop-star wife and having lots of drunken drug binges and sexcapades in New York. (Uma Thurman filed for divorce from Hawke in 2004.) So, there’s a guessing-game, blind-item, what’s-the-juice quality to the proceedings. (Did Audra hit on him? Is Hawke talking about André Balazs?) The actor/writer really gives this reading his all — whether he’s citing Shakespeare or orating the book’s many sex scenes, which often include his failed erections. A major highlight is Hawke’s vocal take on a scene where his dresser coaxes him out of his dressing room at an early preview.
Two more March titles we’re excited about (but aren’t available as of press time):