Audiobooks make any time storytime
Reading a great book is all well and good, but listening to it can become a shared joy
When you’re stuck indoors, as we all are these days, there’s nothing nicer than reading a good book, except for, sometimes, listening to one.
Hearing another person’s voice telling you a story is a simple way of feeling more connected and less alone.
And in the age of the smartphone, all of us carry the means for listening to long stretches of audio in our pockets.
As well as the boom in the number of podcasts being made in recent years, there has been a rise in the demand for audiobooks, and a huge corresponding increase in the quality of audiobooks available to enjoy.
Figures released by The Publishers Association last year showed a 43 per cent increase in audiobook sales compared with the previous year.
And the most popular audiobooks are real investments from a publisher: rich storytelling performances, properly produced and with the listening experience always first in mind. Rather than what makes a good audiobook, it’s maybe easier to talk about what makes a bad one.
Publishers often offer authors the chance to read their own audiobooks, which is a hit-and-miss strategy. The average author, untrained in public speaking, is in danger of delivering their own book in a nervous monotone. Writing a book is a different skill from performing it. When my own non-fiction book, Salt on Your Tongue, was published last year, I didn’t want to inflict my inexperienced reading voice on any poor listeners, so I asked for the audiobook to be read by Jessica Hardwick, an accomplished radio drama actress whose voice is warm and expressive.
Some authors do also happen to be very good at reading their work and seem to relish making sure it comes across as they intended. The result can be an audiobook that’s even more enjoyable than the printed version.
The author Marian Keyes is blessed with a gift for twinkly, knowing storytelling that injects her novels with new life. Philip Pullman narrating the full-cast versions of His Dark Materials trilogy is another good example. His books have so many fantastical concepts and coinages that it’s helpful to hear him tell them in his own words.
Memoirs, too, can be best when read by writers who double up as good speakers: Michelle Obama’s training as a lawyer might be the reason that her delivery of her autobiography, Becoming, is so thoroughly direct and well-balanced throughout. It won a Grammy this year for best spoken word album.
Comedians are particularly good at reading their own audiobooks. After all, it’s difficult to forge a career telling jokes on stage without mastering pace and nuance. One of the best is Amy Poehler’s 2014 memoir, Yes Please. Poehler, who started out in sketch and improvised stage comedy, brings in a host of friends to join her in reading the book, including Seth Meyers, Patrick Stewart and Kathleen Turner, as well as her own parents. The result is real added value with a bonus helping of humour, depth and colour.
And some comedians go even further. The two Alan Partridge books, written by Partridge himself (with some help from Steve Coogan, Rob Gibbons, Neil Gibbons and Armando Iannucci), are read by Coogan in character throughout.
What the comedians understand is that an audiobook is its own kind of entertainment. While holding a book in your hands is a private experience, an audiobook is like someone holding your hand and guiding you through the story, and you develop a relationship with the voice you hear across the hours of listening.
Maybe that’s why some of the most popular audiobooks on Amazon’s audio streaming platform, Audible, are heavyweight classics read by famous actors, including Miriam Margolyes reading Dickens and Rosamund Pike reading Austen.
Alicia Keys’ upcoming memoir More Myself: A Journey is getting a star-studded recording, with Jay-z, Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama. Bono and Alicia’s husband Swizz Beatz will also feature on the recording of the book, to be released March 31.
Books may be a printed technology in existence for hundreds of years, but even older than reading is the art of telling a good story aloud.
While holding a book in your hands is a private experience, an audiobook is like someone holding your hand and guiding you through the story.
When it comes to audiobooks, many authors shy away from reading their material. But most comedians hold their own when sharing their memoirs aloud.