Good books become even better when read aloud by a skilled performer. A recent example is the recording by famed British actor, Edward Fox, of Anthony Trollope’s The Warden, the first of the Barchester novels. Fox’s deep-voiced, droll delivery has opened Trollope’s world to me as never before.
Homer, the first great poet of the West, of course, never wrote a book. He was a performer, a bard, who sung his epics in the banquet halls of ancient Greece. The written accounts of two great epics poems were collected long afterwards. Homer himself was appropriately blind, since sight was not required to hear his stories, only attentive ears.
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 is still among the best audiobook recordings 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, and not available on any of the download services. 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.
A few years ago, I published a complete list of all the audiobooks I had read, ranking from from one star to four. Given that the list was nearly 400 titles long, it was probably never read by anyone but the most obsessive, such as myself. Shorter lists are both more fun for the author and more helpful to the reader.
The awards I bestow to my top 25 audiobooks will give the reader a good idea of what to expect from them. For the regular audiobook reader, I consider them all indispensable. For the neophyte, any of these audiobooks are a great place to start. (Where there are multiple recorded versions, I specify the recommended version.)
With the exception of #1, Hamlet’s Dresser, an unforgettable memoir about teaching, all the below are available from www.audible.com, which I have been using since 2003 before it was acquired by Amazon in 2008. The other viable source of audiobooks is www.downpour.com, which is on a trajectory to give Audible some serious competition. If you can find a CD copy of Hamlet’s Dresser, snatch it up. You can thank me later.
Here you go:
1. Best I’ve Ever Heard: Bob Smith, Hamlet’s Dresser.
2. Most Entertaining: Frank Langella, Dropped Names, Famous Men and Women As I Knew Them.
3. Most Deeply Moving: Helen Simonson, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand: A Novel.
4. Best Memoir: William Maxwell, The Folded Leaf.
5. Best Classic Novel: Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Montecristo (John Lee, narrator).
6. Best Self-Help, Steven Pressfield, Do the Work.
7. Most Funny: Justin Halpern, I Suck at Girls.
8. Most Ingenious: Stephen King, 11-22-63: A Novel.
9. Most Touching: Tony Bennett, Life is a Gift.
10. Best American History: Winston Groome, Patriotic Fire: Andrew Jackson and Jean Lafitte and the Battle of New Orleans.
11. Best Eastern European History: Anne Applebaum, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956.
12. Best Celebrity Bio: William J. Mann, How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood.
13. Best Scare: Reginald Hill, The Woodcutter.
14. Best Suspense: James L. Swanson, Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer.
15. Best Poetry: Robert Donat Reads His Favorite Poetry, 2 vols.
16. Best Performance: Hartley & Hewson, Macbeth: A Novel, ready by Alan Cumming.
17. Best Portrait of the Present Age: Deborah Moggach, The Ex-Wives (a novel).
18. Best Classical History: Tom Holland, Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar.
19. Best American Journey: Jack Kerouac, On the Road (Matt Dillon, narrator).
20. Best World War I: G.J. Meyer, The World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914-18.
21. Best World War II: Max Hastings, Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945.
22. Best Contemporary History: Tony Judt, Postwar: The History of Europe Since 1945.
23. Best Personal: James Lasdun, Give Me Everything You Have.
24. Best Sports: Roger Kahn, A Flame of Pure Fire: Jack Dempsey and the Roaring ‘20s.
25. Most Magical: Dylan Thomas, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” (Dylan Thomas, narrator).
FYI: I am preparing a list of “25 Best Catholic Audiobooks” for publication later this month.