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Let’s talk about audiobooks: best narrators, best listening speeds and why we like them to begin with

Dogs may be the best walking companions, but audiobooks are a close second. (iStock)

The explosive growth of audiobook listening has given us so much to talk about — and not just in terms of plots, characters and twist endings. Now we find ourselves debating the best narrators, listening speeds and multitasking activities, among other matters. But there’s no one right way to consume audiobooks, is there? Let’s discuss.

Nora: It goes without saying — and yet I am saying it — that audiobooks are extremely popular these days. An audiobook is a great companion on a walk (or just a great companion) and an enlightening way to drown out the distraction of family and other noise when you’re trying to work.

But does listening to an audiobook hinder or enhance productivity?

I’m experimenting now as I listen to the melodious Adjoa Andoh read Lauren Groff’s novel “Matrix.” Andoh is one of my favorite narrators. She narrates “Americanah,” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency,” by Alexander McCall Smith. And, of course, she’s also Lady Danbury on the steamy Netflix series “Bridgerton.” (After listening to her in so many book parts, it’s odd in a good way to see her face in such a singular role.)

As Andoh’s voice fills my ears, I’m reminded of my introduction to audiobooks — long before apps, MP3 players or even, dare I say it, personal computers. It was an LP recording of Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows” that got me hooked on listening to books. I distinctly remember listening to that classic children’s story at the library with my sister in the mid-’70s. We found the extremely proper British narrator hilarious right from the moment he said the book’s title, and saying it in such a posh voice remains a running joke between us some 40 years later.

Going back even further, my sister and I used to listen to stories like “Peter and the Wolf” and “Hansel and Gretel.” These were more like full musical productions than the audiobooks of today, but they still made that wonderful connection between story and sound, and perhaps that explains my bias for heavily produced, full-cast audiobooks like “Daisy Jones & the Six.”

Perhaps even better is Meryl Streep leading a group of actors reading “Charlotte’s Web,” which is so much more than a children’s book. I know that not everyone likes this type of narration — more of an old-school radio production than a book reading — but I find the immersive experience more entertaining than a single actor changing voices to capture various characters. That’s very hard, and when it fails, it bombs. (Listen to John Lavelle trying to switch roles in the children’s series “Nate the Great.” It’s almost amusingly bad.)

What are your thoughts on all this, Steph?

Stephanie: First, a wonderful narrator like Andoh — oh, that voice! — can certainly make or break the experience.

I’ve often wondered how different I might have felt reading a book than listening to it.

Narrators are a lot like translators in that sense. When I listened to Jesmyn Ward’s “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” — narrated by the astonishing trio of Kelvin Harrison Jr., Chris Chalk and Rutina Wesley — I was so struck by the beauty of Wesley’s delivery as the voice of Leonie that I think I felt more deeply connected to that flawed and tortured character than if I’d read the words on a page. I still remember my husband finding me standing in the living room mid-chore, as if someone had hit pause on my activity, and crying with headphones on during the novel’s climax. (Remind me to tell you why I started using headphones. Hint: a romance novel by Helen Hoang.)

I’m not sure my insatiable audiobook habit makes me more or less productive, but I can say that I no longer procrastinate on laundry folding. And there’s sometimes a cardio benefit, too. Last week, I decided to walk the dog a few extra blocks because I was approaching my house right at the final shootout in “Winter Counts,” the thriller by David Heska Wanbli Weiden. Darrell Dennis’s narration is marvelous, and he does a particularly good job switching from one character to another, including the female roles. (Sometimes a man doing a female voice or vice versa is so cringy it takes me entirely out of the experience.) I was similarly struck by how Suzanne Toren was able to capture such an array of characters in “The Overstory” — no easy task, given the length of Richard Powers’s novel.

I have a logistical question for you: What speed do you use when you listen? I’m a 1.25x fan myself. Any faster and I start to feel like I’m listening to an auctioneer.

Nora: I listen to audiobooks at the speed at which they were recorded. Does this have anything to do with my ineptitude with technology? Perhaps. Where’s the knob to make it go faster?

I found the knob! But as a famous character of my generation said (at conversational speed): “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Isn’t listening to an audiobook supposed to be relaxing? I found that even a slight increase of the speed elevated my already elevated stress level — like I was rushing to the end rather than hearing the story.

Also, the voice! What’s the point of listening to Tom Hanks read Ann Patchett’s “The Dutch House” if he sounds like he’s on helium? Ha, I know, you’d have to turn that knob way up for that. But, truly, I prefer hearing the narration the way the voice actor and producers intended us to hear it. The length of the pauses, the pitch and the pacing are all part of the experience, no? I wouldn’t listen to Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach’s cello suites at an accelerated speed, so why would I do so with, say, Roald Dahl’s narration of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (which is amazing, by the way)?

On another matter: Your crying while folding laundry reminded me of an additional benefit of audiobooks: They allow you to have emotional book experiences in the most unexpected places. If you were reading the pages, you’d be in more predictable locales: bed, desk, beach, couch, train.

For our next installment: What’s the weirdest place you’ve ever listened to an audiobook?

And to answer my earlier question: Yes, audiobooks distract from work. Hence my meandering in this conversation. Hearing words while typing other ones is a skill I have not (yet) mastered. Have you, Steph?

Stephanie: I have a friend who claims she can listen to an audiobook while reading a news story on her computer. Talk about elevated stress levels! I feel like audiobook listening should only be attempted alongside the most mindless activities: cleaning, eating lunch, weeding, taking a walk, cooking (and even then, if there’s a lot of recipe checking, I find myself hitting rewind).

I guess the beauty of audiobooks for a lot of people is that they can multitask while enjoying a great story. Oh, how we love to check things off our to-do lists. But one of my favorite things to do while listening is, well, sitting while I experience ingenious plots and characters. In fact, it’s such a cozy afternoon, I think I might spend it with Adjoa Andoh. Someone wise told me she does an excellent job narrating “Matrix.”

Nora Krug is an editor and writer for Book World. Stephanie Merry is Book World editor.

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