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The Narrator is the Thing December 14, 2009

Posted by pupfiction in Uncategorized.
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Do you love David Sedaris? I certainly do. Listening to his humorous memoirs have constituted a good portion of my commutes, often alleviating my chronic road-rage issues. In this article in the New Yorker, he lists his favorite audiobooks, short-story collections, and novels. I have often wondered what writers think about audiobooks and I could not agree more with Sedaris than with his statement,

“The problem with audiobooks is that they’re so often imbalanced. This is to say that the narrator is better than his material. Just as often, the situation is reversed, and a so-so actor will ruin a good book.”

Many times I have begun a well-reviewed book in audio form only to eject it because the narration is so grating or incongruous to the voice that I had imagined. Here is my personal list of the best and worst audiobooks.

From dev-random's flickr stream, under Creative Commons license


(Really just five of the good ones I first thought of. The list could go on and on. I especially recommend audiobooks for works containing foreign words such as “The Kiterunner,” by Khaled Hosseini. It’s great to hear words in other languages pronounced correctly.)

1. “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” by Audrey Niffenegger, read by William Hope and Laurel Lefkow.

2. “Pride and Prejudice,” by Jane Austen, read by Flo Gibson.

3. “Feed,” by M.T. Anderson, read by David Aaron Baker.

4. “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” by Douglas Adams, read by Stephen Fry.

5. “In Cold Blood,” by Truman Capote, read by Scott Brick.


1. “The Birth of Venus,” by Sarah Dunant, read by Jenny Sterlin. (Because it was supposed to be about a romantic love affair and the narrator sounded like an elderly woman.)

2. “The Mermaid Chair,” by Sue Monk Kidd, read by Eliza Foss. (Annoying Southern accent. And yes, I realize this might be a personal issue.)

3. “The Time Machine,” by H.G. Wells, read by Bernard Mayes. (It sounded like he was in a tunnel.)

4. “Son of a Witch,” by Gregory Maguire, read by the author. (It’s my personal opinion that authors should not read their own books unless it’s a memoir or non-fiction. This was terrible!)

5. “Anthem,” by Ayn Rand, read by Christopher Lane. (Admittedly, I think I was just annoyed that half the book was commentary on Rand’s life and beliefs.)

Do you read audiobooks? Which do you think are the best and worst?



1. pupfiction - December 14, 2009

Thought of another TERRIBLE one – “Marley & Me,” by John Grogan and read by himself. Not good, John, sorry!

2. Julia - December 14, 2009

I also rely on audiobooks for my commute and agree with everything you have to say about good and bad narration. I’m going to have to try some of your suggestions!
Some of my recent favorite audio books:
–All of the Harry Potter books (read by Jim Dale). I was interested to see that Sedaris listed the books narrated by someone else. Even if you’ve read the books, the audio makes it worth listening again.
–The Mysterious Benedict Society (read by Del Roy)
–Any Bill Bryson book read by him

One that I had mixed feelings about was Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street.
A fascinating story, but one with too many names that were difficult to keep up with on audio. However, it is narrated by Caroll Spinney (aka Big Bird), which I found endlessly entertaining (no, he didn’t use his Big Bird voice the whole book).

3. dataduchess - December 15, 2009

Although my commute now is too short for audiobooks, I have listened to quite a few in the past. My favorites were the Amelia Peabody mysteries by Elizabeth Peters and read by Barbara Rosenblatt. Ms. Rosenblatt did all the accents and voices so well that Amelia truly came to life. I listened to maybe 3 of the books on audio before switching to reading the paperbacks, but even as I read, I heard Ms. Rosenblatt in my head! Another book I loved on audio was The Alienist by Caleb Carr, although I do not know who the reader was off the top of my head. Again, I heard his voice in my head when I read the sequel in paper.
I agree with Julia, the Harry Potter books are wonderful in audio, Dale is fabulous (and I believe has won quite a few Grammys for his voice work, including HP).
Thanks for this great post – it makes me almost wish I had a longer commute… I’m going to have to find another time for audio books in my day. They are really a great way to experience stories.

4. Marla - December 15, 2009

I was going to add Marley and Me but you beat me to it. Absolutely horrible. The Mermaid Chair was pretty bad too. I really enjoyed Omnivore’s Dilemma in audio form read by Scott Brick. Running with Scissors is not one I’d recommend. The voice is fine, but hearing some of the content read aloud is disturbing.

pupfiction - December 15, 2009

I actually loved Running With Scissors, but I know what you mean!

5. Julia - December 17, 2009

Okay, and I just stumbled upon the kids version of Marley and Me, called Marley: A Dog Like no Other, which is narrated by Neil Patrick Harris. I have a feeling that it might be more entertaining than the original.

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