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.

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