In ancient times, wandering storytellers like Homer knew that a listening audience's attention needed to be prodded by a lively plot and interesting characters. The use of conventional language, repetition of key words and even whole passages and stock phrases that are part of the "oral tradition" of literature were as useful for the listener as for the storyteller. While these old-fashioned techniques are no longer in vogue, books that use them at least in part make the best listening. And some books have a natural rhythmic flair perfect for out-loud reading.

To start with, choose novels that have a strong plot, a limited number of characters, effective characterization and not too much description. It's hard to pay close attention to long descriptive passages, as I discovered when I heard N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn and Conrad's Nostromo.

History books that include a lot of dates, unfamiliar foreign names, or convoluted intrigues make heavy going, as I found out when I tried to listen to John Reed's Ten Days That Shook the World. Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror, on the other hand, was as easy to follow as a novel.