Talking books have become so cool now that a host of big-name stars are getting in on the act, writes Caroline O’Donoghue
Perhaps this is common with other youngest children, but I'm most comfortable when I'm being read to. The inherently childlike activity of listening to a story reminds me of being very small and led around an art gallery by my mother while she softly reads the placards aloud. So, it's no surprise, then, that I've been a member of Audible - the internet's foremost audiobook subscription service - for many years now. I have, according to the app, spent a total of 24 days, 16 hours and 23 minutes listening to other people tell me stories.
There is something universally relaxing about listening to a good reading voice, like having your brain slowly massaged by an unseen stranger. It looks like I'm in good company: audiobooks have been on the rise in the last few years with, and have had yet another spike during the coronavirus pandemic. As its first financial quarter closed, Hachette announced that downloadable audiobooks accounted for 14.4% of book sales, up from 10% a year earlier.
A huge number of people are wading into the world of audiobooks for the first time. Some may resist them because of their 1980s associations, perhaps thinking of them as something strictly for little old ladies who borrow steamy romances from the books-on-tape section of the library.
They might be surprised to learn that audiobooks are cool now, and that celebrities are tripping over themselves to narrate the classics. Stephen Fry makes the Harry Potter series the ultimate family favourite for long car journeys, while Tim Curry stars in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events.
Then there are the young-ish, cool-ish actors who dip into audio narration as a way, I suspect, of borrowing some of the book's credibility: James Franco and Slaughterhouse-Five, Maggie Gyllenhaal and The Bell Jar, Benedict Cumberbatch and Metamorphosis.
It's well-paid work for a big-name actor, can usually be done from home and presumably reassures the star that, while the brunt of their income comes from a superhero franchise, their true heart belongs to Kafka, maaaan.
But what about the everyday, jobbing audiobook performer? I happen to have a few in my life - mostly performer friends who use it to make a little extra cash on the side. In the current absence of theatre work, they are relying on this side-hustle more than ever.
Tessa Coates, a comedian, writer and actress who also happened to narrate my first book, Promising Young Women, was surprised by her experience.
"It's a very weird process, audiobooks. They sit you in a little room that is like the Chokey from Matilda, but padded," she says. "There's a man at the other side of the glass, and he just says 'off you go'. And you just begin, with no confirmation whether any of your performance choices are right.
"He's just there to make sure you don't bang on the table or cough or sneeze. He's not going to say 'I think you're going to regret that' or 'that sounds racist'. You have enormous autonomy. I felt this huge burden of care, that I must protect this book. I had to try to do my best and think of what the author - you - would want."
I felt extremely privileged to have voice actor friends narrate my books for me. Not only is it a nice token of our relationship, but I also have perfect trust that they'll understand the movement and cadence of my writing. They, more than anyone, will know when I'm being sincere, when I'm being sarcastic, when something is meant to feel world-weary as opposed to bright and youthful.
This is not a luxury that every author enjoys. American author and philosopher Sam Harris received so much bad feedback about the performance of his book The End of Faith that he decided to re-record the entire thing himself.
"I've always heard that the audiobook of The End of Faith is deeply unsatisfying. Rumour has it that the voice actor didn't do a good job, and in places, even seemed to disagree with me," says Harris, introducing his re-record on his podcast, Waking Up. "He gives a ... infelicitous reading of the text."
Combing through online reviews, it's clear that the strength of an audiobook reading is entirely subjective. Narrators who are praised for being 'clear' in one review are admonished for being 'robotic' in another. A voice that some find full of warmth and personality can be criticised for being too effusive and distracting.
One thing, however, is clear: that in a world where many of us are too stressed or busy to sit down and read a book, there's a huge comfort in switching off for even five minutes, and enjoying being read to.
THE ONE WITH THE HUGE CAST
Daisy Jones & The Six written by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Taylor Jenkins Reid's novels on fame and the reality of celebrity have made her a top choice for beach books, and her oral history of a fake band is expertly rendered here with a huge cast of actors.
THE CLASSIC YOU'LL ACTUALLY ENJOY LISTENING TO
Jane Eyre written by Charlotte Bronte, narrated by Thandie Newton
You know the plot of Bronte's Jane Eyre already, but what if you heard it in actress Thandie Newton's gorgeous deep voice?
THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY YOU'RE ACTUALLY INTERESTED IN
Dropped Names written and narrated by Frank Langella
Langella has met everyone - and he's not afraid to tell you about it. This thoughtful book of essays covers everyone from JFK to Rita Hayworth, ranging from the sombre to the hilarious. Langella's voice is a treat, too.
BEST SHORT LISTEN
The Testament of Mary written by Colm Toibin, narrated by Meryl Streep
This short novel documents the interior monologue of Mary in the days leading to Jesus' crucifixion, and is a poetic look at the New Testament that feels tender and real. Plus: Meryl!