Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Audio Book Recommendations?

(darker earlier in the evenings)

And now for something completely different...

During this past year of my commute, I became a devoted admirer of audio books. Most recently I am reminded of how wonderful they can be while listening to Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, read by Simon Prebble. However, I do not enjoy just any old audio book: There are many that I started and disliked so much that I stopped listening to them. I try to keep my ears to the ground (ha!) for recommendations, and I scour metafilter and similar sites to see what other people like, but it comes down to a question of taste.

Any economics student knows that taste is elusive when it comes to making accurate predictions: What is brilliant and wonderful to one person is awful to another, and it is perniciously difficult to know what will sell successfully. To add variables unique to me, I usually do not want to listen to titles I have already read, and although I am interested in a broad range of topics, there are some I'm decidedly less interested in. The self-help genre, for instance, which includes many titles that regularly top the best seller lists for audio, does not entice me. I also refuse to listen to anything abridged. But rather than describe my audio book tastes in theoretical terms, I'll give some examples:

American Pastoral by Philip Roth, narrated by Ron Silver
The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, narrated by Rob Inglis
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon, narrated by Jeff Woodman
Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, narrated by Suzanne Toren
Animals Make us Human by Temple Grandin, narrated by Catherine Johnson

1776 by David McCullough, narrated by the author
Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, narrated by Dick Hill
American Gods by Neil Gaiman, narrated by George Guidall

Now, I think this problem has broad implications. I must not be the only person reluctant to pay for a service such as Audible, for example, when I can't get a sense of what I'm getting into beforehand. It is somewhat annoying in this age of convenience to track down the CD version at the library (and I work in a library) only to discover I don't like it, but I will continue to do this unless I am certain I will enjoy a certain purchase.

Netflix and Amazon grapple with this constantly -- Netflix being so obsessed that they made a competition and awarded $1 million for the creation of a recommendation system, recall -- and readers' advisory services at libraries are also meant to assist those in similar situations. Gnod is another attempt. Not having had much luck with these services, I reluctantly continue to depend on the time-consuming process of trial and error. And unfortunately I don't have an alternative to this -- only a description of a need, in case anyone listening.


  1. I don't listen to that many audio books, but these are couple I've enjoyed. I don't know enough about your taste in books to know if they would be something you would be interested in but...

    Anything by Sarah Vowell especially Assassination Vacation and The Partly Cloudy Patriot.

    Surivial of the Sickest by Dr. Sharon Moalem

  2. Thanks! I've requested Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates & will remember Moalem for the future :-)

  3. Being a librarian who orders audiobooks everyday, I listen to them all the time (and review and blog about them.) In fact, I usually have too many checked out to actually listen to them all. Here are a few that stick out in my mind.

    Junot Diaz's Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (the language and certain scenes a little rough, so it's not a good choice if kids are in the car, but it is still an excellent listen.)The main character is a huge fan of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and refers to the works throughout the book.

    Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman. An interesting listen if you are looking for some non-fiction.

    Steig Larsson's Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

    Tana French's In the Woods. Excellent mystery.

  4. Yay! Keep 'em coming! I went to subscribe to your audio book review blog ( http://audiobookreviewsmb.blogspot.com/ , right?), Melissa, but is it brand new? I don't see posts there.

  5. Any of Terry Pratchett's Discworld books narrated by Stephen Briggs are wonderful. The ones narrated by Celia Imrie are not bad, either. I can't vouch for Nigel Planer as a narrator as I haven't listened to any of those yet.

  6. Hello fellow librarian with a long commute (waves madly)! I'm a long-time devotee of audio books and I always have two or three on the seat beside me. I agree, there are so many wonderful audio books -- if you start one that's boring, just move on to the next one.

    Right now I'm loving the Shardlake series by C.J. Sansom (Dissolution, Revelation, etc). They are mystery novels set in the time of King Henry VIII with loads of period details. Very engrossing!

    Over the years, I've found some favorites that I listen to again and again if nothing has grabbed my fancy. Among these are:

    The Wimbledon Poisoner by Nigel Williams
    A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
    Flying Under Bridges by Sandi Toksvig
    Anything by Bill Bryson (he reads them himself and is hilarious)
    Anything read by Richard Ferrone

    I don't listen to much non-fiction, but I did love "On Writing" by Stephen King (more of an autobiography, really) and "Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell.

    Also, I don't know if you also listen to podcasts, but there are some really great ones about books. Some of my favorite are "Books on the Nightstand" and "Book Talk from WYPL."

    Happy listening! I plan many return visits here to read about your latest finds!

  7. Thanks Genesis & Lisanne,
    I'll definitely add Pratchett to my list (I remember laughing my head off at the Bromeliad Trilogy as a kid), as well as the ones Lisanne mentions -- all new to me apart from Confederacy, Bryson & Gladwell, hooray!

    If you're into historical fiction, I highly recommend the Patrick O'Brian series read by Simon Vance. Also the Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett -- Anthony Napier was a great narrator for Book 2 (Queen's Play), which is the only one I've been able to track down so far.

  8. As another librarian working the info desk, I've run across a lot of good audiobooks. One of the ways I've found some I liked was by narrator, Barbara Rosenblatt being my favorite. She narrated the Nevada Barr and Elizabeth Peters series. One of my co-workers loves the Alexander McCall-Smith Ladies' Detective Agency series. Some other series I liked are the Deborah Crombie's James/Kincaid series, narrated by Michael Deehy and Dana Stabenow's Kate Shugak series narrated by Marguerite Gavin.