Audiobook publishing is booming. Last year publishers took in nearly a billion dollars, up 28 per cent from the previous one. The smartphone has made it easy to listen anywhere. But the accessibility of the audiobook accounts for only part of its dramatic growth. There’s a unique power in hearing a good book read well, one that, in my opinion, makes listening sometimes preferable to reading.
I’ve listened to audiobooks all my adult life. Hearing Robert Donat’s poetry recordings first hooked me. Before his early death in 1958 and despite chronic asthma, Donat recorded several discs of poetry that remain the gold standard of what can be called “the heard word”. Donat’s tender rendering of the Prayer of St Francis of Assisi was played at the actor’s funeral service.
However, the modern audiobook was launched in 1952 when Dylan Thomas recorded his A Child’s Christmas in Wales (pictured) at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City. It was the very first Caedmon Records release which the United States National Recording Registry “credited with launching the audiobook industry in the United States”. Like Donat, the great Welsh poet had a voice that remains in the listener’s memory.
Sir John Gielgud left a substantial legacy of recordings including an abridged Brideshead Revisited. I usually object to abridged versions, but in Gielgud’s case, the quality of narration is mesmerising. Jeremy Irons recorded an excellent unabridged version. But compare Irons and Gielgud reading the passage beginning with “Oxford, in those days, was still a city of aquatint”, and you hear Sir John conveying the pain of loss passed over by Irons.
Irons misses nothing in his recording of Lolita. The reading is a tour de force. His characterisation of the nymphet-lover Humbert Humbert is compelling.
Other audiobooks of literary classics I would not want to be without include John Lee reading The Count of Monte Cristo and Alan Rickman’s The Return of the Native.
John Sessions’s recent recording of Appeasement: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill and the Road to War is an outstanding example of how a good book of history can be made even better. Sessions catches the voices of all the principal characters, giving author Tim Bouverie’s written narrative the felt drama of living characters.
I’d put Sessions’s recording in my top 10 list, which includes Hamlet’s Dresser read by author Bob Smith; Frank Langella’s recording of his memoir, Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women As I Knew Them, and Derek Perkins reading of Berlin at War by Roger Moorehouse. I defy anyone to resist the power and pleasure of these recordings.