I listened to my first unabridged audio book in 1989 while commuting. In all over the last 25 years, though that commute ended long ago, I’ve heard more than 200 novels, memoirs and nonfiction books.
Brilliant actors such as Henry Strozier, Barbara Rosenblatt, Simon Vance, George Guidall and John McDonough have made great books jump off the page and into theatrical triumphs. Their work defines the difference between a transcendent road experience and one that finds a driver daydreaming.
Recently, I heard the first few paragraphs of a novel by the gifted Barbara Kingsolver. In this case, Recorded Books allows the author to read her own work. This is an excruciating mistake that reduces Kingsolver’s very good writing to blackboard scratchings. On the other hand, John McDonough, with his soothing voice and his exquisitely patient pacing, can bring me to tears – not a good thing at 65 miles per hour — simply by reciting, “The End.”
To honor the best in readers, and to celebrate this personal 25th anniversary of pleasures to the ear, mind and heart, I offer 25 of my best listening experiences, over the course of five postings. These will not be ranked in order of preference – they’re all excellent. I also invite you to send along your own favorites, so we can begin a conversation about listening.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain, read by Michael Pritchard. (Books on Tape). As this was my first audio book experience, I got the tape backwards so often that on two occasions I had to pull over to the side of the road to solve the narrative puzzle. As for Twain, always ahead of his time, he figured out a way to make the narrator both very much alive and very much dead. I’m particularly fond of the passage in which his time traveler from Hartford, Hank Morgan, teaches Camelot’s Knights of the Round Table to play baseball, and though they won’t take off their armor, they do embrace other aspects of America’s pastime, including the rite of demanding, “Kill the umpire!” Pritchard is a hard-edged narrator, lacking in nuance, but not authority.
The Berrybender Narratives (The Sin Killer, By Sorrow’s River, etc.), by Larry McMurtry, read by Henry Strozier (Recorded Books). There’s a version of these performed by Alfred Molina, too, and it’s quite good, but Strozier’s performance is beyond usual measures, bringing the reader into McMurtry’s remarkable juxtaposition of English aristocracy and the wild, wild west. What a triumph of author and actor, both with great ears for dialogue.
King Solomon’s Carpet, by Ruth Rendell (writing as Barbara Vine), read by Michael Pennington (Chivers Audio). Rendell ranks with P.D. James as the most literary of British authors who explore criminal minds and acts. It’s hard to pinpoint why Rendell’s work (whether under her pseudonym or not) lends itself so well to the ear. Some of it is the exquisite rhythm of the prose. Then there’s the dialogue. In her most popular work – exploits of Chief Inspector Wexford – the conversations between cops is often hilarious and always human. King Solomon’s Carpet is really a magic carpet ride for a listener, and a compelling portrait of the London tube lines.
Moneyball, by Michael Lewis, read by Scott Brick (Random House Audio). Like John McPhee, Michael Lewis is an expert at articulating “inside baseball.” That is, he can take complicated subjects, like finance and computer technology, and explain it by documenting the uphill climb of people. In this case, the effort by Billy Beane, general manager of the upstart Oakland A’s, and his techie colleagues to compile one of baseball’s best rosters from a list of nobodies. The audio book reads like a thriller.
David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens, read by Simon Vance (Tantor Media). What a treasure. When you listen to Vance’s masterful performance of the varied voices of Dickens (Peggotty, Barkis, Miss Betsey Trotwood, Steerforth, Mr. McCawber, and particularly the world-class scoundrel Uriah Heep), you are reminded that if you read, or listen, to nothing but the work of Charles Dickens you’d pretty much cover every possible human predicament (and an occasional solution.)
So, now, who delights the Dickens out of you?