Audiobooks, The Word Spoken

By Deal W. Hudson

Homer, the first great poet of the West, wasn’t a writer but a performer, with the dining halls of ancient Greece as his stage. Before the advent of written literature, the medium of poetry was dramatic utterance and song. Eyes were no more necessary to the enjoyment of words than they were to blind Homer’s creation of his epics.

Now, thanks to sprawling suburbs and lengthy job commutes, united with the digital age, the Homeric practice of listening to literature rather than reading it is back in fashion with the burgeoning business of audiobooks. Taped literature originated in 1932, when the American Foundation for the Blind created the Talking Book on long-playing records (themselves an innovation). Two years later, the Library of Congress introduced the Readophone, which could contain as much as two hours and 20 minutes of literature and music.

The modern “recorded book” was launched in a moment of glory in 1952, when Dylan Thomas recorded his “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” for Caedmon at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City. This may still be the most nearly perfect recording of anything by anyone. Listening to “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” and other recordings of Thomas reciting his own poetry-or his lectures, often delivered while he was intoxicated, will likely convert anyone to the recorded-book medium. The unmatched beauty of Thomas’ voice will stick in your memory and become the measure of everything else you hear.

Several other early “star” readers deserve to be mentioned along with Thomas in the audiobook hall of fame. Sir John Gielgud left a large legacy of recordings, from early Argo vinyl disks to readings of Pilgrim’s Progress and Brideshead Revisited on the Caedmon label. Unfortunately, Gielgud’s version of the Brideshead is abridged. Jeremy Irons, the star of the 1982 television miniseries version of Brideshead, has an unabridged version of Evelyn Waugh’s novel nearly as good. Jeremy Irons made splash some years ago with a complete recording of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita for Random House to complement his appearance as Humbert Humbert in the 1998 film version of that novel. The reading is a total tour de force, for adults only, of course.

The recorded audiobook, so convenient for automobile listening, had its beginnings in 1948, soon after Ampex started mass-producing the tape recorder. The first taped audiobooks were designed not for commuters but for blinded veterans of World War II. Philips produced its first mobile audiocassette, known as the 8-track, in 1963. By 1975, the smaller cassette had replaced the 8-track in most cars and homes. The biggest boost to recorded books came in 1979, when Sony introduced the Walkman, adding joggers and bus riders to its pool of listeners. Then came digital files that could be downloaded and stored, or streamed through, on personal computers, tablets, iPhones, and Androids. You can listen to an audiobook anywhere.

A sure sign that recorded books came of age was novelist-journalist Tom Wolfe’s decision to write the first stand-alone audiobook, Ambush at Fort Bragg (1997), read by Edward Norton (Bantam Audio). That same year, Audible came into being offering digital audio players four years before the iPod was introduced. In 1998, Audible created its first website for downloading books onto personal computers. Though struggling in the first few years, Audible has experienced a meteoric rise in visibility and sales. This growth was stimulated largely by the launching of Audible Air in 2005, making it possible to directly and wirelessly download books to PDAs (personal digital assistant) – no computer needed. Audible’s content has burgeoned to over 150,000 audio programs amounting to over 1,500,000 hours of programming.

I joined Audible in March 2003, almost 10 years ago, and have experienced its move into the wireless age. So it seems like an appropriate time to take stock. Here are all the books I’ve downloaded in the past decade, and if I have listened to them completely I have rated them in tiers from 1 to 6, with two additional tiers to indicated those I have not finished or those I plan to read in the future. That I did not finish should not necessarily be regarded as a lack of a recommendation because my lack of interest could have been due to my mood at the time. More than once, I have returned to a book I didn’t care for in the past and enjoyed it thoroughly, Proust’s Swann’s Way comes to mind – loved it the second time around. A good audiobook will remind that the origins of storytelling, of all fiction, are in the word spoken.

Before the tiers, may I first offer a few awards to:

Most Enjoyable: Frank Langella, Dropped Names, Famous Men and Women As I Knew Them
Most Deeply Moving: Helen Simonson, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand: A Novel
Best Memoir: William Maxwell, The Folded Leaf
Best Classic Novel: Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Montecristo, read by John Lee.
Biggest Disappointment: Tom Wolfe, Back to Blood
Best Self-Help, Steven Pressfield, Do the Work
Most Funny: Justin Halpern, I Suck at Girls
Most Laughs: Stephen King, 11-22-63: A Novel
Most Touching: Tony Bennett, Life is a Gift
Best American History: Winston Groome, Patriotic Fire: Andrew Jackson and Jean Lafitte and the Battle of New Orleans
Best European History: Anne Applebaum, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956
Best Celebrity Bio: William J. Mann, How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood
Biggest Scare: Reginald Hill, The Woodcutter
Most Gripping: James L. Swanson, Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer
Best Poetry: William Shakespeare, Ages of Man, read by Sir John Gielgud
Best Performance: Hartley & Hewson, Macbeth: A Novel, ready by Alan Cumming
Best Portrait of the Present Age: Deborah Moggach, The Ex-Wives, a novel.

Tier 1: The Best: a great place to sample an audiobook if have been reluctant or uninterested.

1. James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice
2. Philip Roth, American Pastoral
3. Helen Simonson, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand: A Novel
4. Paul Collins, The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City & Sparked the Tabloid Wars
5. Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Montecristo
6. Tony Bennett, Life is a Gift
7. Steven Pressfield, The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great
8. Roger Kahn, A Flame of Pure Fire: Jack Dempsey and the Roaring ’20s
9. James L. Swanson, Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer
10. Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl
11. Neal Bascomb, Hunting Eichman
12. Stephen King, 11-22-63: A Novel
13. Robert Zorn, Cemetery John: The Undiscovered Mastermind Behind the Lindbergh Kidnapping
14. Margaret George,The Autobiography of Henry VIII
15. Winston Groome, Patriotic Fire: Andrew Jackson and Jean Lafitte and the Battle of New Orleans
16. Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch
17. William J. Mann, How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood
18. Anne Applebaum, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956
19. Laura Moriarty, The Chaperone
20. Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fy: A Novel
21. Compton MacKenzie, Whisky Galore
22. Emma Donohue, Room: A Novel
23. Frank Langella, Dropped Names, Famous Men and Women As I Knew Them
24. Reginald Hill, The Woodcutter
25. James Salter, A Sport and a Pastime
26. William Shakespeare, Age of Man, read by Sir John Gielgud
27. James Lasdun, Give Me Everything You Have

Tier 2: Please read this: (Which also applies the tier above)

1. Anton Chekhov, The Short Stories, v. 1
2. Somerset Maugham, Short Stories, v. 3
3. Carl Hiaasen, Skin Tight
4. Guy de Maupassant, Short Stories, v. 1
5. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
6. William Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow
7. Joe R. Lansdale, Sunset and Sawdust
8. Erskine Caldwell, Tobacco Road
9. Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers
10. Flannery O’Connor, A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories
11. Erik Larson, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin
12. William Maxwell, The Folded Leaf
13. William Maxwell, The Chateau
14. Victor Hugo, Les Miserables
15. James Agee, A Death in the Family
16. Michael Caine, The Elephant to Hollywood
17. Jess Walter, The Financial Lives of Poets
18. Max Hastings, Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945
19. Ford Maddox Ford, Parade’s End
20. Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
21. John Green, The Fault in Our Starts
22. Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame
23. Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
24. Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
25. Hartley & Hewson, Macbeth: A Novel
26. Rachel Joyce, Perfect: A Novel
27. Donald Dewey, James Stewart: A Biography
28. Donald Spoto, Marilyn Monroe: The Biography
29. Philipp Meyer, The Son
30. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
31. Madeline Miller, The Song of Achilles: A Novel
32. Theresa Anne Fowler, Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald
33. Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin
34. Justin Halpern, I Suck at Girls

Tier 3: A strongly recommended read:

1. Mike Waltari, The Egyptian
2. Nancy Mitford, The Sun King: Louis XIV at Versailles
3. Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way
4. Elmore Leonard, Pagan Babies
5. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848
6. A. J. Langguth, Union 1812: The Americans Who Fought the Second War of Independence
7. Jess Walter, Beautiful Ruins
8. Bob Rotella, Putting Out of Mind
9. Emile Zola, Therese Raquin
10. Marion Meade, Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties
11. Anthony Doerr, About Grace
12. Edith Wharton, False Dawn
13. Boris Akunin, The Winter Queen
14. Ernst Junger, The Storm of Steel
15. George Eliot, Middlemarch
16. Simon Sebaq Montefiore, Young Stalin
17. Multiple authors, The Chopin Manuscript: A Serial Thriller
18. Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Trilogy, Book 1
19. Jane Harris, The Observations
20. Adam Carolla, In Fifty Years We’ll All Be Chicks
21. Kenneth S. Lynn, Charlie Chaplin and His Times
22. David Thompson, The Moment of ‘Psycho’
23. Tony Horowitz, Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War
24. S. J. Watson, Before I Go to Sleep: A Novel
25. Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin
26. Michael Hauge, Screenwriting for Hollywood
28. Barbara Tuchman, The Zimmerman Telegram
29. Carl Hiaasen, Strip Tease
30. John Dos Passos, 1919
31. Gillian Flynn, Dark Places: A Novel
32. Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
33. Melvyn Bragg, A Time to Dance
34. Compton MacKenzie, Monarch of the Glen
35. Andrew L. Mellen, Unstuff Your Life: Kick the Clutter Habit
36. Thomas, Hardy, Wessex Tales
37. Selden Edwards, The Lost Prince
38. Devin McKinney, The Men Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda
39. John Banville, Ancient Light
40. Patricia Wentworth, Spotlight
41. Maggie Shipstead, Seating Arrangements
42. Sol Stein, Stein on Writing
43. Robert McKee, Story
44. Steven Pressfield, Do the Work
45. Michael Frayn, Skios
46. Julian Fellows, Snobs
47. Judi Dench, And Furthermore
48. Patricia Highsmith, Selected Novels and Short Stories
49. Medavoy & Young, You’re Only as Good as Your Next One; 100 Great Films, 100 Good Films, and 100 for which I Should Be Shot
50. Bart & Gruber, Shoot Out: Surviving Fame and (Mis)Fortune in Hollywood
51. Deborah Moggach, The Ex-Wives
52. Jason Zinoman, Shock Value
53. Julian Fellows, Past Imperfect
54. Wyn Craig Wade, The Titanic: Disaster of the Century
55. Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
56. Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter
57. Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins
58. Tom Standage, A History of the World in 6 Glasses
59. Bruce Levine, The Fall of the House of Dixie
60. Joe Lansdale, Edge of Dark Water
61. Donald L. Miller, Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought Against Nazi Germany
62. Ethan Mordden, The Hollywood Studios: House Style in the Golden Age of Movies
63. Classic Christmas Stories
64. Classic Christmas Radio Plays
65. Anthony Horowitz, The House of Silk: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery Novel
66. Elizabeth von Arnim, Love
67. Edward Ball, The Inventor and the Tycoon: A Gilded Age Murder and the Birth of Moving Pictures
68. Diana Preston, Cleopatra and Antony: Power, Love and Politics in the Ancient World
69. James Dickey, Deliverance
70. Jane Ellen Wayne, Clark Gable: Portrait of a Misfit George Saunders, Tenth of December
71. D. J. Taylor, Derby Day: A Novel
72. Robert Lewis Taylor, W. C. Fields: His Follies and Fortunes
73. Holly Goddard Jones, The Next Time You See Me
74. Dan Schultz, Dead Run: The Murder of a Lawman and the Greatest Manhunt of the Modern American West
75. Michael & Elizabeth Norman, Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March
76. Erskine Childers, The Riddle of the Sands
77. Emma Donohue, Landing
78. William Landay: Defending Jacob: A Novel
79. Louise Penny, The Beautiful Mystery: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel
80. Bram Stoker, Dracula
81. Vita Sackville-West, All Passion Spent
82. Alyson Richman, The Lost Wife: A Novel
83. C.V. Wedgwood, The ThirtyYears War
84. Tony Bickham, The Weight of Vengeance: The United States, the British Empire, the War of 1812
85. Javier Marias, The Infatuations
86. Charles Bukowski, Hollywood
87. Michael Dibdin, Cabal: Aurelio Zen, Book 3
88. Scott Weidensaul, The First Frontier: The Forgotten History of Struggle, Savagery, and Endurance in Early America
89. Fred Anderson, The War That Made America
90. Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin
91. Simon Winchester: The Men Who United the States: America’s Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics, and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible
92. Ross King, The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism

Tier 4: A worthwhile and enjoyable read:

1. Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls
2. James Meek, The People’s Act of Love
3. Rumer Godden, The Greengage Summer
4. Thomas Hardy, Two on the Tower
5. Guy de Maupassant, Normandy Stories
6. Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat
7. Stendhal, Scarlet and Black
8. Patrick deWitt, The Sisters Brothers
9. Yasunari Kawabata, Beauty and Sadness
10. Joanne Harris, Blackberry Wine
11. Cormac McCarthy, The Road
12. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage, v. 1 & v. 2
13. Crimes of Passions (various short stories)
14. Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of the Four
15. Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children
16. Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d’Urbervilles
17. Tiny Fey, Bossypants
93. Elmore Leonard, Road Dogs
94. Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich
95. Jo Nesbo, The Redbreast
96. P. G. Wodehouse, The Adventures of Bertie and Jeeves, v. 1
97. Dennis Miller, Ranting Again
98. Michael Diblin, End Games
99. Noel Coward, The Noel Coward Reader
100. P. G. Wodehouse, A Pelican at Blandings
101. T. C. Boyle, The Women: A Novel
102. G. J. Meyer, A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914-1918
103. Stephen Simpson, Play Magic Golf
104. Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita
105. Brett & Kate McKay, The Art of Manliness
106. Martin Cruz Smith, Polar Star
107. Graham Gardner, Inventing Eliot
108. Joseph Parent, Golf: The Art of the Mental Game
109. Bob Rotella, The Unstoppable Golfer
110. Patricia Highsmith, Ripley Under Water
111. Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies
112. Martin Sixsmith, Russia: Part One: From Rulers to Revolutions
113. Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
114. Mark Kermode, It’s Only a Movie
115. Barbara Comyns, The Vet’s Daughter
116. Andrew Miller, Pure
117. Sean Ryan, Be the Ball
118. Suzanne Fagence Cooper, Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin, and John Everett Millais
119. Robert Louis Stevenson, The Master of Ballantree
120. Charlotte Rogan, The Lifeboat
121. Alex Grecian, The Yard
122. David Morrell, The Successful Novelist
123. Robert Goddard, Caught in the Light
124. Wiley Cash, A Land More Kind Than Home
125. Elfriede Jelinek, Greed
126. Gregory A. Freeman, The Forgotten 500
127. Gregg Hurwitz, They’re Watching
128. Robert W. Merry, A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent
129. Susan Wise Bauer, The History of the Renaissance World
130. Ian Burma, The Year Zero: A History of the Year 1945
131. Schmidt & Rendon, Writers Between the Covers
132. Eve Golden, John Gilbert
133. Christopher Isherwood, Prater Violent
134. G. J. Meyer, The Borgias: The Hidden History
135. Dan Callahan, Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman: Hollywood Legends (read the new bio by Victoria Wilson)
136. Mason Currey, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work
137. Lawrence Durrell, The Black Book
138. Michael Paterson, A Brief History of Life in Victorian Britain
139. Peter FitzSimons, Nancy Wake
140. Reginald Hill, A Cure for All Diseases
141. John Creasey, The Toff and the Fallen Angels
142. Barbara Leaming, If This Was Happiness: A Biography of Rita Hayworth
143. Stephen King, Joyland
144. Billy Crystal, Still Foolin’ Em
145. Matthew G. Lewis, The Monk

Tier 5: Should have been better:

1. Tom Wolfe: Back to Blood
2. Julie Andrews, Julie Andrews, Home: A Memoir of My Early Years
3. Karen Russell, Swamplandia
4. Russell Shorto, The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan
5. John M. Barry, The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History

Tier 6: Avoid

1. Nick Tosches, Me and the Devil: A Novel
2. Kyung-Ran, Tongue

Tier 7: Left unfinished:

1. Peter Cary, My Life as a Fake
2. Alexander Lernet-Holenia, Count Luna
3. Collins and Lapierre, O Jerusalem
4. James Shapiro, A Year in the Life of Shakespeare
5. R.D. Wingfield, A Killing Frost
6. William Murray, City of the Soul
7. Eleanor Updale, Montmorency
8. Halldor Laxness, Under the Glacier
9. Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time: First Movement
10. Daniel Suarez, Daemon
11. Margaret MacMillan: The Modern Scholar: Six Months That Changed the World
12. Michelle Moran, Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution
13. J. Randy Taraborrelli, Elizabeth (The Mann bio is so much better!)
14. Elizabeth Douglas Jackson, Caligua
15. Justin Cronin, The Passage
16. Alexander Soderberg, The Andalucian Friend: A Novel
17. Michael Korda, Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia
18. John Connolly, The Gates
19. Glenn Frankel, The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend
20. Theodore Dreiser, An American Tragedy
21. David R. Gillham, City of Women
22. Alison Moore, The Lighthouse
23. James Hogg, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner
24. Cervantes, Don Quixote (this is just so long!)
25. John Boyle, The Absolutist
26. John D. McDonald, The Deep Blue Good-By
27. A.L. Kennedy, The Blue Book
28. Stephen Harrigan, Remember Ben Clayton
29. George & Weedon Grossmith, The Diary of a Nobody
30. Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World

Tier 8: On my reading list for the future.

1. Mitchell Zuckoff, Robert Altman: The Oral Biography
2. LeRoy Ashby, With Amusement for All: A History of American Popular Culture since 1830
3. George Simenon, Pietr the Latvian
4. Amy S. Greenberg, A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln and the 1946 Invasion of Mexico
5. Ross King, Leonardo and the Last Supper
6. Terence Stamp, Double Feature
7. David Bordwell, The Way Hollywood Tells It
8. Henry James, Portrait of a Lady
9. Andrei Makine, A Hero’s Daughter
10. Andrei Makine, Music of a Life
11. Robert Goddard, Past Caring
12. Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend
13. Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now
14. Florian Illies, 1913: The Year Before the Storm
15. Bruce Courtenay, The Potato Factory: The Australian Trilogy, Book 1
16. Ivan Turgenev, Torrents of Spring
17. Charles Emerson, 1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War
18. Edmund Crispin, Swan Song
19. Marisha Pessi, Night Film: A Novel
20. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment
21. Sean McMeekin, July 1914: Countdown to War

Published at Catholic Online, 2002.

 

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