she doesn’t trust the words to do their work
May 12, 2022 12:46 AM   Subscribe

What Makes a Great, or Terrible, Audiobook Performance? The case for doing less. Those of us who listen to audiobooks have our personal preferences, but one thing a lot of people seem to find grating is when the narrator seems to think their job is acting, not reading.

(I will also editorialize by saying I also hate when people try to do accents, or can't pronounce names and place names properly).
posted by Megami (62 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
 
I listen to: Librivox, where volunteers, often ensembles of volunteers, read public domain books, plays, etc I think its easier to follow and understand a text when the reader is enthusiastic instead of mechanistic.

I listen to alot of pdfs read aloud by screen reading software. Its a struggle.

For actual professionally produced audiobooks im always wondering why they dont do ensemble casts instead of finding a single reader who thinks they can switch gender age and accent at will. Even the great readers (and some are) would be better just having a second voice actor.

Also, nearly all audiocontent is read so slowly as to be painful, if your app or interface doesn't allow greater than 1.5x speed, or better yet 2x speed, why?

-sincerely a person who weeds in their free time and cleans professionally.
posted by anecdotal_grand_theory at 1:27 AM on May 12 [12 favorites]


Also, we desparately need a narration ettiquette for graphs that isn't "see website for an image of figure 3". Describe the curve. Table of data? desribe the headings, range of values and simple trends if evident.

for screen readers, charts and graphs from scanned pdfs of pre1980 non fiction is an f-ing nightmare. Its essentially the audio equivalent of dividing by zero. The interdimensional beings from hellraiser are the only ones who enjoy it and the rest of us are swallowing a 90 second chaos grenade of numberstutter.
posted by anecdotal_grand_theory at 1:34 AM on May 12 [16 favorites]


Not to dump on people's hard work but I've always had a problem with the high, campy way a lot of male narrators do female dialogue.

I used to listen to a lot of audiobooks but realized while writing this comment that my listening has moved 100% to podcasts. I basically need talkie sounds/stories to keep me in my seat during the more mechanical aspects of work and podcast often feel more organic in that aspect.

I remember the guitarist Jeff Healey doing a radio interview to support braille literacy efforts - saying that recorded books were supplanting braille books in libraries and schools. I'm not sure what the situation is today but he was pretty alarmed to imagine there might be a time when young blind people would lose the foundational experience of reading a book with their own inner voice.
posted by brachiopod at 2:10 AM on May 12 [43 favorites]


MetaFilter: swallowing a 90 second chaos grenade of numberstutter
posted by chavenet at 2:36 AM on May 12 [4 favorites]


I think I agree with the author of the article, at least mostly. I am not a big fan of ensemble recordings, or narrators who do different voices for each character. At least for me, a novel is not a radio drama, and behaves awkwardly under those constraints. There is an interpretive step to reading, and narration that treats the text as stage direction ends up making some of those interpretations for you - this is not a terrible thing, but when they clash with what you would have imagined, it is uncomfortable.
posted by Nothing at 3:18 AM on May 12 [7 favorites]


The thing that drives me most crazy is the addition of any noise that isn't someone reading. I do not need musical interludes, for instance. This is becoming more and more of an issue with podcasts and Audm readings.

Enough with the weird electronic sounds that make me look around thinking something coming up behind me while I walk down the street! The Daily is particularly bad at this and sometimes I just turn them off.
posted by dobbs at 4:29 AM on May 12 [16 favorites]


This essayist seems to want her audiobooks to be more like reading and less like storytelling, which is certainly a reasonable preference to have. But I don't think it's necessarily the preference of most audiobook listeners.

I listen to a lot of audiobooks, doing chores and commuting and running errands on foot in the city. I tend to choose which books I listen to based on which ones I want told to me. So I listen to a lot of memoirs and plot or dialogue driven stories that I think can work really well with an expressive narrator or a full cast.

I think it's interesting that she cites E.B. White's feelings about the Stuart Little audiobook and his preference for the way his father read books to him: I think a book is better read the way my father used to read books to me — without drama. He just read the words, beginning with the seductive phrase “Chapter One,” and I supplied my own dramatization.

That's understandable, but I think plenty of people have fond memories of their caregivers doing voices as they read them things as well.

In general, if I want to savor the prose of a piece of writing, I do tend to pick up a printed version and read it that way. So I get her preference, but I don't agree that all stories need or benefit from that style of narration. Of course, I have the privilege of usually having multiple formats to choose from in how I consume a story, and it's going to be more frustrating if you have fewer choices due to visual or other limits and you're stuck with a narrator you hate.

Anyway, this is an interesting topic for me and I'm glad you posted this piece! I agree with this author that Julia Whelan is a great narrator, and anything she reads gets a bump in interest from me.
posted by the primroses were over at 4:33 AM on May 12 [5 favorites]


im always wondering why they dont do ensemble casts instead of finding a single reader who thinks they can switch gender age and accent at will

In part, cost, at a guess. Audiobooks are not cheap to produce at the best of times.
posted by BWA at 4:51 AM on May 12 [8 favorites]


I listen to a lot of audiobooks, and sleep with one on every night. It's changed my life - a well-read old favourite book playing quietly is just the thing to keep me from fretting when I wake up in the middle of the night. So, I agree with the author that a straightforward reading is best. I like when the reader's voice is even and clear, so that it sort of lulls you into a meditative state, where it's just you and the story. I do like when a reader does subtle accents or vocal inflections to distinguish the characters, but if they're badly done, yikes. The problem with ensemble recordings is that so often there are volume and audio quality changes between the different readers, and that can jar you out of that lovely flow. And why the hell put music in between chapters? please no. I have listened to the audiobooks of the Discworld series many times, both readers are fantastic. They are recording new versions of the whole series, which I'm excited about, but I really hope they are as least as good as the old ones.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 5:12 AM on May 12 [10 favorites]


The article is of the "I like what I like and therefore it is the best way to do it" genre, which, well, okay.

Unless the book is read by the author -- which is very often not a great idea, as authors are not professional narrators or performers -- then inevitably the recording is going to be an interpretation, one, because the narrator is not the author and can't/won't know the precise intent behind every single sentence, and two, because the narrator is a human with their own inclinations, preferences and opinions about the text (and three, because there's also usually an audio director/producer involved, who again is usually not the author and has their own opinions, so there's another layer involved there). An additional factor can be the nature of the audio production process itself -- narrators who get booked a lot don't necessarily have time to read the book before the recording, which means another set of choices about how the book gets read.

As an author, I was not initially in love with audiobook versions of my books because it was an interpretation, and because the narration was not the way I heard the book in my own head -- the narrative beats would sometime be different; a word would be given a different emphasis; a character who I heard one way in my head would sound different (and sometimes would feel like they had a different personality entirely).

Two things got me over this. The first was that audio increased my annual income from writing by about a third, which smoothed over quite a lot. The second thing was that I realized that audiobook narration is a performance and that, like one can appreciate the myriad of ways that actors have approached the "To Be Or Not To Be" soliloquy in Hamlet, one can equally look at the choices the narrator makes in their performance and see how they are in conversation with the text, often in ways that are a surprise to me, the author. So the necessary fact of the interpretation stopped being an annoyance and became a thing of interest.

Which is not to say that I like every narration of my work (although I do like most of them just fine). It does mean I don't get especially annoyed if the way the book is narrated is not precisely the way it was in my head, or how I would do it if I were the one narrating my book (which I am not especially tempted to do, unless I write a memoir). Even the narrator who I think is closest to my own personal voice -- Wil Wheaton, who is within a few years of my age, grew up where I did, has the same vocal tics and intonations that I do, and is an actual friend of mine and so can text me when he has a question when recording -- makes choices I wouldn't, or didn't, with the words.

It offers a certain level of surprise to the text, which means that, oddly, the audiobook version of my novels are the ones I can appreciate most in the role of a reader -- filtering the words through someone else gives them a remove that helps me appreciate the words in themselves, and not dwell on the fact of how I set them in their form, and how I was feeling the day I wrote that particular bit, or whatever.
posted by jscalzi at 5:32 AM on May 12 [63 favorites]


im always wondering why they dont do ensemble casts instead of finding a single reader who thinks they can switch gender age and accent at will

In part, cost, at a guess. Audiobooks are not cheap to produce at the best of times.

I work in large-print and audiobook publishing, and this is spot on. Having multiple readers means much more cost, time, and work, and we operate on razor-thin profit margins and deadlines as it is.

Not to dump on people's hard work but I've always had a problem with the high, campy way a lot of male narrators do female dialogue.

I gave up on an audiobook of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo for this exact reason - the wispy, high-pitched, childish voice the reader used for Lisbeth Salander was profoundly irritating and out-of-place.
posted by Morfil Ffyrnig at 5:35 AM on May 12 [10 favorites]


I agree that less is more for readers who lack talent, but when the reader is good, more is more. E.g. Stephen Fry reading Harry Potter.
posted by prefpara at 5:41 AM on May 12 [5 favorites]


For me, the pinnacle of worst will always be the old British guy who read the Game of Thrones books, suddenly switching into a creaky high pitched witch voice while trying to be a 13 year old girl having sex for the first time. Just….just no. No to all of it. Please, for the love of god, no to every single thing happening over there on my laptop.
posted by terridrawsstuff at 5:52 AM on May 12 [8 favorites]


I read my own audiobooks -- I know how the sentences are supposed to sound and I don't feel like anybody else really does! I appreciate jscalzi's appreciation of the alternate interpretations of the work but I'm just not that ready to give up control; I write books, not plays.

Also, we desparately need a narration ettiquette for graphs that isn't "see website for an image of figure 3". Describe the curve. Table of data? desribe the headings, range of values and simple trends if evident.

Yeah, there seems to be no standard practice. For my first book I narrated the pictures; for the second, I said "see figure [xxx] on the included .pdf." I like the narrative way better. But for that, the author really needs to be the reader.
posted by escabeche at 6:07 AM on May 12 [3 favorites]


Also, we desparately need a narration ettiquette for graphs that isn't "see website for an image of figure 3". Describe the curve. Table of data? desribe the headings, range of values and simple trends if evident.

Yeah, there seems to be no standard practice. For my first book I narrated the pictures; for the second, I said "see figure [xxx] on the included .pdf." I like the narrative way better. But for that, the author really needs to be the reader.


As a researcher who does a lot of Federal work, I have to make sure anything federally funded is 508 Compliant. The problem is that different Federal agencies interpret compliance differently, so as escabeche notes, there isn't always clear-cut guidance on how much narrative is sufficient narrative to explain a figure. On the other hand, I do appreciate the simplicity of 508-compliant tables. Eliminating empty and extraneous cells can actually make tables more legible than some of the stuff I encounter in Academic journals.
posted by TheKaijuCommuter at 6:13 AM on May 12 [2 favorites]


I really prefer readers that can do voices well. I often listen to stories with lots of characters and the helpful cues that mark changes in speaker in written text (like quotation marks and paragraph breaks) can't be reproduced vocally. So, the shift in accent or pitch makes it much easier to sort who is speaking in the story.
posted by oddman at 6:33 AM on May 12 [5 favorites]


I've been listening to a lot of Audiobooks with my five year old. I hate music, but I'm mostly just fine with character voices, except when they're a little over the top. There's a series called RJ Boy Detective that is free on audible and sometimes the reader does the little boy's voice in an over the top 1920s detective-accent, which is very strange for a little kid in the 21st century.

And sometimes they're a little icky. The Questioneers chapters books, are each read by a narrator more-or-less matching the demographics of the focal kid. In the fourth book, Iggy Peck and the Mysterious Mansion, the narrator reads the Sofia Valdez dialogue in an over-the-top Speedy Gonzalez accent and it drives me bonkers: Sofia Valdez was born and lived her whole life in Blue River Creek. Why would she have an accent? She does not have an accent in the book that focuses on her.

In the Toys Go Out trilogy, I love the voices, but I wish they had used the same reader for all the books because the readers use different voices for the same characters.

I think even if the reader doesn't do voices, they kind of have to do some acting. I mean it would be weird if angry/excited/anguished/bored dialogue were all read in exactly the same tone. There have to at least be changes of tone.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 6:36 AM on May 12


I can never seem to get comfortable with the difference between a book and a performance of a book. A recording of an audiobook feels like a performance first and a book second.
posted by Flexagon at 6:48 AM on May 12 [1 favorite]


i like to think i know something about sci-fi. and weir's artemis is garbage. worse than garbage. super pervy late henlein style. first person from a 17yo girl pov.

what the fuck is wrong with these sorts ofauthors?

all to say, the audiobook is narrated by rosario dawson. oh. my. god. she literally breathed life in the central character. she made weir's science-ish exposition barely listenable - up 1000x from not listenable at all.

Dawson performed a miracle, keeping that title on life support in it's entirety. she's amazing.

don't pay for artemis, but if you want to hear an Actor, listen to Dawson read it (matey, wink, wink). Good lord, she's a gift to us all.


couldn't find another audiobook narrated by her after a cursory goog.

if that was my first narration project, i would explode on my agent, "what the fuck are you doing to me ? you wanted to torture me? you want me to hate reading!!!??? never again. won't do it. will not. no. no. nope."

Ms. Dawson, please narrate some literature for us. thanks, j_
posted by j_curiouser at 6:52 AM on May 12 [7 favorites]


I have very fond memories of Dick Estell's readings, which were anything but polished or elaborate, and (as I recall) made scarcely more than gestures toward changing voice tones for different characters in dialogues.

He also broke up laughing scores of times reading Patrick McManus books, which somehow worked brilliantly.
posted by jamjam at 6:59 AM on May 12 [1 favorite]


I agree that less is more for readers who lack talent, but when the reader is good, more is more. E.g. Stephen Fry reading Harry Potter.

My daughter is a deep Potter aficionado and declares that Fry is inferior to... the other fellow whose name I have forgotten.

There is a famous story about Fry’s reading of this book which I am sure some among us know, and which I heard directly from Fry himself when he was performing a few years ago:

At one point, he said, his agent contacted him about doing the audiobook for a first novel by a new author. It was a YA thing about a wizards’ school, but Fry looked over the sample chapters and thought it was decent, so he agreed.

During the course of the reading for the audiobook, Fry found himself stumbling repeatedly over one particular line: “Harry pocketed it.” He knew, he said, that the author wanted the entire book read verbatim so as to help kids reading and listening at the same time. “Nonetheless,” he said, “I kept tripping over those final two words, so I called author directly and explained the problem to her. ‘Jo,’ I said — I call her Jo — ‘would it be acceptable to you if I changed the line to ‘Harry put it it in his pocket?’ It would help so much.’ She thought about it for a second and said, ‘No.’ And I think just to needle me, the line, ‘Harry pocketed it,’ has appeared in all of the novels since then.”
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:02 AM on May 12 [12 favorites]


For actual professionally produced audiobooks im always wondering why they dont do ensemble casts instead of finding a single reader who thinks they can switch gender age and accent at will. Even the great readers (and some are) would be better just having a second voice actor.

I am sure there is an audience for it, but I am not personally interested in ensemble casts where it is more like a play reading. However, I thought the audiobook version of Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings used multiple readers to great effect. Since each chapter is in the voice (often, the internal voice) of a different character, having several different readers fit very well with the book's structure and voice.

Not to dump on people's hard work but I've always had a problem with the high, campy way a lot of male narrators do female dialogue.

I hate this so much. I also hate when they pick a reader who can't pronounce words in the text. I had to turn off the audiobook of one of Don Wilson's books because the reader was painfully mispronouncing Mexican place names and words in Spanish -- the book is about the cartel wars so it is going to have place names and words in Spanish throughout, so why not pick a reader who can manage that?
posted by Dip Flash at 7:26 AM on May 12 [8 favorites]


Upthread I made a comment about hating high, campy female voices. My favourite reader sort of walks the line on that but still creates a great experience - if you want to hear a well acted book, or would just like to hear 15 hours of Alan Rickman's voice, get The Return of the Native.
posted by brachiopod at 7:35 AM on May 12 [2 favorites]


My biggest "beefs" are the same as others in this thread: weird/loud/jangly sound-effects (mainly in sci-fi/fantasy), musical interludes - and men doing female voices... poorly.

But - I don't listen to them much anymore - gone are the days for x-country road-trips. And - if I am doing a chore/activity it is now actually with one or more people, unlike many years ago when it was always me alone - so we have conversation or music.
posted by rozcakj at 7:48 AM on May 12


My daughter is a deep Potter aficionado and declares that Fry is inferior to... the other fellow whose name I have forgotten.

Jim Dale!
posted by cooker girl at 7:56 AM on May 12 [4 favorites]


I for one like my audiobook readers to show some emotion. But I don't think Kramer is talking to plebians like me, or most of the folks in this thread. She writes phrases like "reader of my ilk" and is careful to note she is discussing literary fiction , not mere fiction.

I *enjoy* the over the top voice Wheaton gives to Scalzi's the Collapsing Empire series. And
Kevin Free nails the tone for Martha Well's Murderbot diaries. And I do appreciate actors trying to do different voices for different characters, even if some of them come off cheesy, because as listeners we don't get the benefit of quote marks and line breaks that readers get to break up back and forth dialog.
posted by mrgoldenbrown at 8:00 AM on May 12 [5 favorites]


You know who is a great reader? Alexa. She reads Kindle books in a surprisingly pleasant manner. You can quickly forget you are listening and become absorbed in the text. Download the ebook from your library and the experience is refreshingly free.
posted by charlesminus at 8:00 AM on May 12 [1 favorite]


I've watched a couple different Let's Plays of the Danganronpa visual novel games and having a professional voice actor like ProZD do the dialogue for a large chunk of the cast (including women, which is funny, given how deep ProZD's normal speaking voice is) really lit the game up in a way that enhanced rather than distracted (personally, I prefer ProZD's rendition of the main henchbear to the game's English voice actor). Of course they're effectively works which are exclusively in first-person narration, but it's not like there aren't many books like that.

My dad read The Fellowship of the Ring to me when I was a small child, mispronounced most of the names (tbf, "naaaz-ghoul" sounds scarier than "nazzz-gull"), and thus crippled me for life in hard-core nerd oral discussions of the book. On the plus side, I assumed that Merry was actually Mary, and thus a girl hobbit.
posted by praemunire at 8:04 AM on May 12 [5 favorites]


Also...the work was (usually) written to be read silently. The words can't just "do their work" because they were not chosen to be an oral performance!
posted by praemunire at 8:14 AM on May 12 [2 favorites]


My favorite audiobook performances are of Sherlock Holmes by David Timson. These recordings, huge files, used to be free to download, back in the early 2000s, but now seem to be locked up.
posted by bz at 8:18 AM on May 12 [1 favorite]


I also hate when they pick a reader who can't pronounce words in the text.

I would love to listen to an audiobook of Don Quixote, but every sample I've listened to, the reader can't say "Quixote" which is a real dealbreaker.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:51 AM on May 12 [2 favorites]


Setting aside the musical element which, while perhaps fitting, is also unnecessary, this is still my favorite reading of anything. I just wish the whole book could have been done by Swinton. Another good one is James Marsters reading the Dresden Files, particularly as the series goes on. And on the poetry side, and again with probably unneeded musical accompaniment, Cumberbatch + Keats is an absolute delight.

More on topic, I prefer a straight reading versus a radio play performance. We have actual radio plays for that style and they were written to fit. Novels, not so much.
posted by Godspeed.You!Black.Emperor.Penguin at 9:03 AM on May 12


The crux of the issue is that the way people speak isn't the same as the way people write & an actor is going to tend to do what they're used to doing, which is making something sound like how we're used to hearing it. That's what I hear in the Diane Keaton clip, Diane trying to sound like she's telling her friend a story, as she does. But if the text wasn't written in any way close to how people talk then the reader will have to find a way to compensate. Like it sounds like Diane had more success with in other parts of the book.

I'm very sensitive to this & I can't listen to audio books where the reader hasn't smoothed out this dissonance and/or the writer didn't anticipate it.

Re: Full cast, the original audiobooks of the His Dark Materials trilogy had a full cast & it really worked for those stories. I definitely recommend those for anyone. The audiobooks of the sequels which are read by the author are also pretty good. He also did the narration in the original audiobooks. The way he reads, you can hear the love & affection he has for his characters which then transfers that feeling into your brain via audio.

Other audio books I can recommend:
- The Odyssey, new translation by Emily Wilson, read by Claire Danes. I wasn't expecting to be able to get into it, but the way it's written & the way it's read really work together, I found it to be very absorbing.
- The Curious Case of the Dog in the Nighttime, I don't remember who was reading it but they did a great job. Because it's from a first person perspective it sounded very natural to me, basically like listening to someone's Star Trek personal logs.
- The Martian by Andy Weir. I listened before the movie came out & I also found it very absorbing, and again I feel like the first person perspective helped it sound natural.
- The Diary of Samuel Pepys. The way the reader makes him sound horny when he's talking about being horny is hilarious.
posted by bleep at 9:08 AM on May 12 [1 favorite]


I love Will Patton's reading — easily my favorite narrator. His interpretations of Deliverance, the Robicheaux novels, and, especially, Denis Johnson's work is amazing. I've probably listened to Train Dreams / Jesus' Son 40 times. Great deal — 2 books for one credit.
posted by dobbs at 9:18 AM on May 12 [4 favorites]


neverwhere/gaiman is a very good author read.
posted by j_curiouser at 9:18 AM on May 12 [2 favorites]


Jim Dale's reading of Harry Potter is on a different level. His voices are (mostly) great (his Hermione always sounds very whiny to me, but then again...). I heard a rumor that some fans of the audiobooks were a little disappointed by the centaurs in the movies, because they had the "wrong" accent (IIRC, Dale's sound Welsh).

I find this completely believable.

Side note: Jim Dale was one of only a few people in the world who knew the contents of the 7th Harry Potter book before it was released, as the audiobook release was right around the same time as the book release. He was sworn to secrecy.

Not to dump on people's hard work but I've always had a problem with the high, campy way a lot of male narrators do female dialogue.

The WoT audiobooks solved this by having two narrators, one who handled the 3,417 men and one who handled the 8,622 women.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 9:19 AM on May 12 [5 favorites]


I have to give a shout out to the Ben Aaronovitch Rivers of London series, read by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith. I am sure it's been mentioned here before but Holdbrook-Smith is incredible and really brings the whole series to life. In one of the later audiobooks there's an interview with Aaronovitch and Holdbrook-Smith where Aaronovitch says that he started writing in oddball characters with difficult accents purely to force Holdbrook-Smith to try and recreate those accents. The only one he struggles with is American English, which gives many Brits trouble, but even that has improved markedly since its first appearance.
posted by dellsolace at 9:35 AM on May 12 [12 favorites]


Also...the work was (usually) written to be read silently.

This may be why I find that Victorian or earlier authors work best for me in audiobooks. I'm not sure how accurate it is, but I have a vision of Papa or Mama reading a chapter of Dickens or whatever to their assembled (huge) family every evening. There certainly was a tradition of reading aloud, especially newspapers, in pubs and work-places where the work wasn't too noisy.

More personally, I also like older books for their lack of sex scenes, which I'm fine with in print, but which make me cringe when read out loud.
posted by Fuchsoid at 9:38 AM on May 12 [1 favorite]


What Makes a Great, or Terrible, Audiobook Performance?

"Read by Scott Brick"
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:53 AM on May 12


I mostly disagree with the premise of the article, with the caveat that a bad narrator can ruin anything. One bonus I didn't expect, though, was that the Susan Cooper books set in Wales (the Grey King in particular) had a narrator that clearly actually spoke Welsh, and after spending half my youth trying to figure out the Welsh words using the (minimal) pronunciation guide in the book, I got to hear it done properly at last! (I had not been too far off on the sounds, but had zero idea of where the emphasis would fall, and, as it turns out, guessed wrong every time.)
posted by restless_nomad at 10:02 AM on May 12 [3 favorites]


Battle Cry of Freedom, a brilliant history of the American Civil War, made for a great and long audiobook listen, except for one thing. The reader pronounced the "h" in "whig." "The wHig party..."

My right eye twitched every single time.

Male readers attempting female voices is almost always a terrible idea, agreed. And I've heard a few women read audiobooks who sounded like dorks when they deepened their voices for men's dialogue. Strong vocal register change is unwise unless you're a highly skilled mimic or enjoy annoying people. Keep it light, dadgumit.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 10:26 AM on May 12


I came here to complain, about male readers reading women characters (high and whiny for everything, have you met any women?), it's been covered. I'm listening to Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse's Mycroft books. So very well done. Damian Lynch does an excellent job. I'm also reading the Lady Holmes series by Sherry Thomas narrated by Kate Reading, also well done. Maybe I just like modern Holmesian tales, however I do think these are well done, and the cross gender narration works well.
posted by evilDoug at 11:10 AM on May 12 [2 favorites]


Kate Reading in particular is consistently great.
posted by restless_nomad at 11:12 AM on May 12 [1 favorite]


I save specific books for the audiobook format specifically because there are some books that take well to it--anything first person with a sufficiently engaging audiobook performer, full-cast readings of a book with multiple narrators/speakers, books that take well to having, say, a plummy British narrator be soothing at you--and others that just don't. (I'm guessing, for example, that House of Leaves loses a significant something in audiobook form, lol.) If I'm reading a book via an audiobook, it's specifically because I want to take advantage of the benefits of the format for that book, and because I've given the audiobook sample a listen and found it to my liking. Basically, will it be more fun to listen to, or more fun to read? I pick the format accordingly. I suppose other people want more all-purpose audiobooks, which is fine, and there are definitely plenty of kinds of book that don't really benefit from having an audiobook performance with a lot of verve or whatever. I know I've swapped between formats when it turns out that, actually, this isn't working in audiobook form, or vice versa.
posted by yasaman at 11:38 AM on May 12 [1 favorite]


This may be why I find that Victorian or earlier authors work best for me in audiobooks. I'm not sure how accurate it is, but I have a vision of Papa or Mama reading a chapter of Dickens or whatever to their assembled (huge) family every evening.

Definitely a pre-20C tradition of reading books out loud which largely dried up with the gramophone/radio/television.
posted by praemunire at 1:13 PM on May 12 [2 favorites]


The words can't just "do their work" because they were not chosen to be an oral performance!

true true true!!!!

read the first potter & fantastic mr fox. dahl knows how to write a read-aloud.
posted by j_curiouser at 1:23 PM on May 12


The UK narrator of Anthony Beevor's WWII book "D-Day" attempts to do accents for German, French, and American speakers. Every European gets the same bad accent, and every American is a parody of John Wayne.

I have abandoned this audiobook three times.
posted by wenestvedt at 1:39 PM on May 12


I love audiobooks.
I prefer a single reader. I'm not a fan of a cast. It's more like the reading experience too have one reader. No adjustments required by me mid book.
I find most readers do terrible young adults or children.

BUT MY BIGGEST HATE: Sound effects and music intro/outros. Just STOP.
posted by cccorlew at 1:58 PM on May 12 [2 favorites]


I really like books that are read by the author. I recommend those by Simon Winchester such as Krakatoa.
posted by neuron at 2:17 PM on May 12 [1 favorite]


I love Will Patton's reading — easily my favorite narrator. His interpretations of Deliverance, the Robicheaux novels, and, especially, Denis Johnson's work is amazing. I've probably listened to Train Dreams / Jesus' Son 40 times. Great deal — 2 books for one credit.
posted by dobbs


Oh yeah, absolutely. One of my favorite postapocalyptic books is Alas, Babylon and was really impressed with Patton’s narration.
posted by darkstar at 4:55 PM on May 12


I agree with this author that Julia Whelan is a great narrator, and anything she reads gets a bump in interest from me.

Same. I specifically look for novels she reads. She also wrote her own novel... and narrated the audiobook for it. I just find her voice so soothing. It's nice to have a list of other readers to look for books I might enjoy listening to.
posted by urbanlenny at 5:19 PM on May 12


Before I started reading audio books, I assumed I would love a full cast recording. Like a lot of us here, I hate it. I much prefer a single reader, though I don't mind when they do voices for the characters. Not fakey-fake voices, but just enough of a change for me to know that they're reading another character's voice. I make an exception for Lincoln in the Bardo. It might have 50 narrators, but it actually works for that book.

I've listened to Louise Erdich read four of her own books, and while I do really like her writing, I also love her voice and the way she reads. Her most recent novel, The Sentence, was particularly good.

Marin Ireland is a genius reader. I crave more of her voice sometimes, regardless of the book. Kevin Free is so much the voice of Martha Wells' Murderbot that when he turned up narrating a character in a short story collection, I wondered if the main character in the very realistic story he was reading might be a secret robot. Juliet Stevenson is a wonderful narrator too. And, listening to Lauren Groff's Matrix, it was driving me crazy that I knew the audiobook narrator but couldn't place her. And it was the actress from Bridgerton who plays Lady Danbury!
posted by gladly at 6:18 PM on May 12 [1 favorite]


I listen to alot of pdfs read aloud by screen reading software. Its a struggle.

posted by anecdotal_grand_theory


This.

I can't visually read bulk text anymore and have to increasingly rely on human narration and machine reading (screen readers, text-to-speech).

Done right human narration is great, and can really hold your attention. Though I agree that attempts at differentiating characters and doing accents don't always work so well. Mostly, I think, because the readers overdo it. A mature male voice is never going to do a teen girl well.

Doesn't help that a lot of audiobooks seem to insist on using low bit rates, which just adds another layer of work for your ears and brain. It's mono audio, FFS, is a modest 128 bit rate too much to ask for?

Machine reading has made available to me a lot of stuff that I simply could not access any other way, and I am very grateful for this tech.

However, while it is fine for relatively short pieces, medium-long pieces just become drone-like and hard to listen to after a few minutes.

Makes you appreciate how important the subtle randomish variations and inflections in human speech matter in keeping your attention, in making it human.

Also machine reading has serious limitations with certain formats. Try it with a standard forum format. Reads everything in sight. And that is before we get into any graphics, like data tables, etc. Though there are always going to be limits to what can be done translating visual elements into words.
posted by Pouteria at 6:21 PM on May 12


Veteran podcaster and radio guy Oly Mann was talking about his experience doing an audio book on Answer Me This one time. He talks professionally all day long so figured it would be easy money, but when he got to the third character he didn't have any more voice changes he could pull out to distinguish the characters.

It's not that he was trying to ham it up I believe, merely that a page of dialogue not punctuated by line breaks and close quotes is going to blend it together.

For actual professionally produced audiobooks im always wondering why they dont do ensemble casts instead of finding a single reader who thinks they can switch gender age and accent at will. Even the great readers (and some are) would be better just having a second voice actor.

They do this occasionally of course. The Neil Gaiman branded recording of Ellen Kushner's Privilege of the Sword sticks in my memory as a quite good full cast approach. It's a great book but the experience is different. (In general, my boring opinion is that whatever they do is fine if they do it well--but the high performance ones are so different than "reading.")
posted by mark k at 11:33 PM on May 12


I highly recommend three-time Audie Award winner George Guidall's reading of Gravity's Rainbow. He understands every word he's saying and knows how the long sentences are put together, thus making Pynchon's masterwork much easier to comprehend. A true tour de force.
posted by whuppy at 4:28 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]


I'd just read it, but driving to Atlanta it was one of very few audio books in the truckstop library, so I listened to The Butcher Boy read by the author Patrick McCabe on that trip. It was very revealing, for instance there is a recurring closure of the house door, and the way the author read that made it clear how that was a repeated "lock out" of the protagonist, and I didn't catch that reading the book.

Arriving in Atlanta, my young passenger insisted on sitting in the parking garage to hear the last 10 minutes, "That was the best book I never read".
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:30 AM on May 13


I'm a fervent enthusiast of audio media, from old radio drama to modern radio drama and audiobooks of all stripes, and despite being a voracious reader of tattered paper books in my youth (and still, though more on digital readers lately), I'm increasingly of the opinion that, in contrast to the nostalgic claims that books are the grand tradition of literacy and stories told aloud on tape/disc/data are the brash upstart, oral storytelling is innate to humans (obviously with allowances to be made for reasons of hearing/neurodivergence) and has been for a hundred thousand years, while books available on scale to the masses are more or less a mostly post-20th century phenomenon.

There's definitely a lot of variation in how successful an audiobook is for me, where I normally eschew the sort of television voice of chirpy, over-emoted, hand-waving-by-emphasis that's popular in television and streaming video because somewhere along the way we collectively decided that being a good storyteller involves a lot of gestures and mugging for the camera and voice actors have had to keep up, and sometimes find the stumbling, not-great readings of amateur readers on Librivox titles a better listen than the Hollywood-ified big star reading. I sometimes enjoy a reading with different people for different parts, sometimes prefer a level-headed read, like the calm unfolding voice of Malcolm Hillgartner on the unabridged audiobook of E.B. White's essays. Sometimes I like a really Radiolabbed-up combination of sound and music, like an audiobook of Neuromancer that I really enjoyed a couple decades ago from the library and have never been able to find since, and sometimes, a really flat, placid reading in its own silent space is best.

I would never want to hear Sedaris, Pema Chödrön, John Waters, or Grace Paley read in any voice but their own, but I'm fine with other voices tackling writers not so established or accomplished as speakers. The thing is, it's really hard to just set a hard and fast rule for what will work for me and make it stick. To put it in musical terms—I absolutely adore what Michael Tilson Thomas did with The Rite of Spring, one of my lifetime favorite works of aural art, but I never fell in love with Reich's The Desert Music until I heard the electrifying rendition by Alarm Will Sound, that went to the rock and roll extremes of the piece in a way that Tilson Thomas' sedate, lingering, sober and ultimately classically wallowy approach never did. The reading that works is the one that works, drawing you close and clutching you by the heart and never, ever letting go after that in an echo that draws you back to the narrative throughout your life.

I used to work in a little room rendered almost unbreathable by anhydrous ammonia leaking from an aging Xidex D-80 diazo microfiche duplicator, lit overhead with yellow-tinted fluorescent lights that protected the film from exposure to blue light, and I'd sit there in a haze of atmosphere more appropriate to Neptune while listening to our tape duplicator running off distribution copies of the cockpit voice recordings of crashing airplanes as I examined photos of the crash victims with a loupe clamped to my eye, making a quick check of all the details to ensure that every copy we released for NTSB requests was accurate. It was a strange time, when I was 18, adrift, recently expelled from high school and without a clear idea of where to go next, and I literally spent eight hours of every work day looking at mangled corpses and hearing the burble of increasingly resigned pilots heading to their deaths as a machine clicked off thousands of microfiche copies of the crash reports for the armies of lawyers, lawmakers, and investigators seeking out what to do next.

What I listened to as an escape was WPFW, a local Pacifica station out of nearby DC that played all sorts of odd an interesting things each day that were heavily focused on the black community in the District, and the thing that held me up through a career stretch that I've since realized probably gave me some level of PTSD in the way that people paid a pittance for screening porn and gore out of social media are suffering now was a spot every day on the radio when a reader would read through some amazing books in a warm, intimate voice, proceeding unabridged through the texts over weeks, in an hour per day.

The Color Purple knocked me out in that little liver-lit room, where the only window, with a heavy yellow tint, looked out on a scruffy pair of rail lines between rows of weathered cinderblock buildings and I'd have to keep my ears open for train horns, which signaled me to stop the microfiche duplicator while freight trains would rumble through as not to blur my duplicates, starting it again as they'd pull away. I got to know Celie and Nettie and Shug and the other characters there, with all the torrential calamity of plane crashes falling away from me as that voice patiently played out the stories day after day, week after week, in an electromagnetic version of the old circle around the nighttime campfire. I started queuing up a tape each day to capture the story so I could listen again in my battered old Datsun, slogging painfully around the Beltway to my apartment in Bladensburg, though I wish in retrospect I'd thought to save these.

After The Color Purple, though, the reader started the next book, The Women of Brewster Place, and I was lifted, bodily, into other lives in a way that few things have before or since. I can't even really describe what it did, though the way those stories circle in space, coming together in an overall narrative that didn't follow any of the rules of the "great American novel" I was led to think were the hallmarks of great literature, reprogrammed my code, real deep down, and when I started to tell stories myself, I've always followed that new pattern printed on my neural network.

I was so engrossed, in fact, that on the day when a delivery van on the road about a thousand feet north of my little room took a chance to dart around the descended gates at the crossing and lost, I was so shocked by a sudden turn in the narrative of one character I'd bonded with over days that the colossal slam of the train hitting the van had me stand to stop the microfiche duplicator in a kind of daze, and as the slowing train pushed the train past my window, I made brief eye contact with the very surprised-looking driver of the van as the locomotive pushed it past at what seemed like a languid pace, and I was convinced he, too, had been listening to the same story.

Is that some shit or what? we said with our eyes (at least I thought we said), and then he was gone, and all that was left was the slowing flanks of boxcars covered in rust, the livery of long-deceased railroads, and wild graffiti.

I was afraid to read The Women of Brewster Place as a paper book for decades, because it was so much a thing that a gentle reader had poured into me, but on finally revisiting, I was pleased to note how much it just felt familiar, even in its tragedy, loss, and thwarted optimism. The reading was magic in a world where we're always told magic no longer exists, or maybe never did, and yet here we are—in a place in which a voice pushing air around can build whole realms out of nothing.

I wonder sometime, if we'd ever arrive at a place where books, read aloud, could exist in multiple variations, read in different ways, in the same way I have twenty variations on The Rite of Spring in my music library, each on its own vision and some better than others, but often serving to bring my focus to a different angle in the musical narrative, out there to find the people who it could carry through a train crash observed from a little yellow room hanging inexplicably alone in the atmosphere of Neptune. It's probably optimism, but perhaps in the era of the podcast, these things will come around.

In the meantime, I make time each night to sit in the chair next to the bed where the inexplicable kid in my life is waiting and read another chapter or two from my own favorites, often having to edit out, in real time, some of the racist dialect out of A Cricket In Times Square and figure out how to do the voices for all the absurd characters in The Phantom Tollbooth or just settle into an even-paced voice to unfurl the action in The Borrowers.

As the world starts to open up again, too, I'm looking forward to assembling my little live rig of synthesizer, processors, and microphones and seeking out venues for my little side hustle as a peculiar raconteur électronique telling inconsequential stories to small audiences. I've also done "naked" storytelling for Risk! and Baltimore's Stoop Storytelling and others, and I enjoy that, too, mainly because I don't have to carry gear around, but it is so fun to be able to use sound as another tool in the storytelling toolbox that I usually count stories+sound+music as my favorite variation on the theme.
posted by sonascope at 8:04 AM on May 13 [6 favorites]


That narrative surprise/van driver event was some classic synchronicity!
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:57 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]


That narrative surprise/van driver event was some classic synchronicity!

I will say that the episodic structure of The Women of Brewster Place does leave a lot of those beats, and I think I was so hyped up by the narrative that day that I probably would have read significance into almost anything that was going on at the time, but it really did feel like a kind of weird magic back then. It's probably akin to how you can line up old films with albums and get that pareidolia of seeming connection.

For the record, the driver was okay, as trains coming into that part of Rockville, Maryland were already on caution, since that area was increasingly built-up for that kind of old-school on-grade crossing and the push was more about a slow heavy train taking a long time to stop. I hit the maps out of curiosity and I think I'd forgotten how close my old employer was to that intersection.
posted by sonascope at 10:41 AM on May 13


This thread really demonstrates that preferences are personal. I love a good ensemble cast audiobook, when done well. In particular, Lucy Foley's Agatha Christie-style mysteries have multiple narrators, and having multiple readers helps to differentiate the various stories and improves the drama.

Epistolary or interview-based novels really benefit from multiple readers as well, like The Illuminae Files or Chuck Palaniuk's Rant. Sarah Vowell reads her own books, but tends to have her famous friends cameo as historical figures (they are all wonderful).

As far as the article itself, I can understand why you wouldn't want a dynamic performance of an essayist like Jane Didion, but in general, I'd rather the reader try to bring some life into the prose. I'm often listening to audiobooks in the car, and a long droning passage can entirely lose my attention. Neil Gaiman's readings of his own books are fantastic, although Lenny Henry's reading of Anansi Boys is stellar.

But again, YMMV. For me, I'm generally not listening to "literary" works because audiobooks are for the purpose of giving me something to focus on during long drives.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 11:01 AM on May 13


I have to give a shout out to the Ben Aaronovitch Rivers of London series, read by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith... The only one he struggles with is American English, which gives many Brits trouble, but even that has improved markedly since its first appearance.

My favorite accent that he does is the American FBI agent, Kim Reynolds. It has that flat inflection that indicates she is always unimpressed, even though she is an ally of Peter's.
posted by soelo at 6:31 PM on May 16


I've gotten so many good audiobook recs on mefi in the past years! To pay it forward, here are some titles that I enjoyed:
emsemble cast: "Lincoln in the Bardo", "Daisy Jones & The Six"

author read: Louise Erdich "The Sentence", John le Carre "Pigeon Tunnel", Elizabeth Gilbert "City of Girls", Ruth Ozeki "A Tale for the Time Being", Lulu Miller "Why Fish Don't Exist",

actor/actress:Tom Hanks "Dutch House", Juliet Stevenson "Once Upon a River", Cumberbatch "In Order of Time"

Titles that turned me off:
forced women voice: both "Norwegian Woods" and "The Wind-up Bird Chronicles"

accent: "Uprooted" (though "Spinning Silver" was great in Russian accent), "Portrait of a Thief" (uneven Mandarin accent really grates though they tried)

Good single-person performance:
"The Fifth Season"
"One Hundred Years of Solitude"
"Klara and the Sun"
posted by of strange foe at 9:01 PM on May 16


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