O. B Hardison, Jr. in his article “On the Road Again with Recorded Books” regales his readers on his own experiences with audiobooks. Toward the beginning of the essay, he offers a few tips to readers about which books to listen to. One particular tip is noting the quality of the narrator:
“The narrators are usually pretty good, but there are rotten apples in every barrel. Also, people have different tastes in narrators. . . . It’s therefore a good idea to listen to a few minutes of any recorded book before putting it into the car. When you’re on the road with 250 miles before the next pit stop, you’re stuck with what you choose.”
I couldn’t agree with Hardison more. Like a monotone lecture or overlong sermon can kill a class or church service, a poorly narrated audiobook can bludgeon an audio reading. Thus, stay away from recording labeled “free.” They have been recorded with voice creation software and tend to sound like Siri with a bad head cold.
The better books are professionally made and might cost you a little money (unless you get them from the library). The best narrator for any audiobook is Jim Dale. The British-born actor and comedian received wide acclaim and notoriety for his work on the Harry Potter audiobooks, released by Listening Library. Others might recognize him from the TV series Pushing Daisies. Anyone who has listened to these books or has watched the show know what I am talking about. Dale has a remarkable talent for voice characterizations. Though I didn’t imagine the voices he used for some of the characters when I read the series, he keeps the characters distinct and lively. The narrative stays well-paced and interesting. Dale never lets the story lull, and he creates excitement in his intonations during moments of suspense without sounding disingenuous. He certainly enriched my experience with both Harry Potter and audiobooks. As one of my classmates said once, if I had lived in a land of eternal darkness, I would take Jim Dale along to keep me company.
In addition to listening to Jim Dale, listening to two authors read their own books strengthened my love for literature and listening. If you have not heard Neil Gaiman read one of his books, you must listen to a copy right now! I started with The Graveyard Book, possibly one of favorite books. Next, I chose Coraline, another favorite. I have heard samplings of Neverwhere and Stardust, and just the brief experience has my ears itching to hear the rest. Gaiman’s amazing ability to write and narrate makes him a master storyteller. His narration has stuck in my mind and has influenced my writing. Not that I want Gaiman to read my stories, but listening to his stories has made me want to write stories that are best read aloud. I could use my students as guinea pigs into my endeavor, but I do not think I want to torture them with my feeble attempts at craftsmanship. I’ll let Gaiman be the master and I the amateur. It’s less stressful this way.
The second author is Madeleine L’Engle. I did not hear her read A Wrinkle in Time, but I have listened to read some of her other books and stories. L’Engle does not have the voice quality as Dale or Gaiman, but her stories are rich with vocabulary and scientific knowledge that L’Engle knows and tackles well. Further, L’Engle, like Gaiman, has the advantage of having written the stories she narrates. Thus, her narration and characterization are most original and familiar to her, and readers can know they are getting the best interpretation of the story. In fact, I have not heard too many authors reading their own works that I have not liked. Therefore, I can assuredly recommend selecting a work read by the author. I think the choice will not return unsatisfactory.
Narrators can certainly derail a audio experience. But like Hardison suggests, readers should find what fits their mood and taste. Like movie-goers would select a movie based on the actors or the director or the subject matter, so readers should look a little further into the book, the narrator, and perhaps the publishing company before listening. Once a reader has completed his listening experience, he can then add to The List of books that he can never seem to finish. But that’s okay. Maybe Jim Dale will narrate The List.
 Hardison, O. B. “On the Road Again with Recorded Books.” Washington Times Magazine, 1 Sept. 1986: M3-4.