Audiobooks: 35 of the best lockdown listens

Latest releases, all-time classics and pandemic parables to keep your ears busy on your endless walks

We are currently living through the Great Golden Age of Audiobooks. There has never been so much choice, both in what to listen to and how to listen to it.

Your first port of call should be your local library. If you are a member and download the Borrow Box app, you will have access to an incredible selection of audiobooks, all free of charge. The snag is there is only a certain amount of digital copies available for each title, so you might have to wait for one to become available. Check your local county library to browse the collection.

If money isn’t an issue and you don’t fancy waiting around for your next listen, there’s really only one place to go: Audible. Membership costs £69.99 (about €80) per year, entitling you to 12 audiobooks of your choosing. Considering individual titles can cost upwards of €35, this is by far the most cost-effective option. Audiobooks are downloaded to your phone or tablet via the Audible app and are yours to keep forever.

Finally, if you have no interest in the latest releases, Open Culture has a collection of 1,000 classics available as free audiobooks. Definitely one to bookmark.

FICTION

The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead
Read by JD Jackson, Colson Whitehead, 6hrs 46mins
Winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Colson Whitehead’s follow-up to The Underground Railroad is another superb account of institutionalised racism in America. The story of two boys sentenced to a brutal reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida, it is a devastating and essential book.

Historical novelist Hilary Mantel was awarded an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Literature by UCD in 2016. File photograph: Dave Meehan
Historical novelist Hilary Mantel was awarded an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Literature by UCD in 2016. File photograph: Dave Meehan

The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel
Read by Ben Miles, 38hrs 11mins
She’s only gone and done it again. Hilary Mantel’s conclusion to her Cromwell trilogy is historical fiction at its magisterial best. You’ll frequently hit the rewind button to fully appreciate the many, many perfect passages. The elusive Booker hat-trick beckons.

There There, by Tommy Orange
Read by Darrell Dennis, Alma Cuervo, and others, 8hrs
Following a disparate group of characters gathered for the “Big Oakland Powwow”, There There is a dizzying, furious, heart-breaking and wholly original lament of the Native American diaspora. An utterly compulsive listen.

Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens
Read by Cassandra Campbell, 12hrs 12mins
This is one for all the now-virtual book clubs out there. Part coming-of-age tale, part lyrical ode to the natural world, part murder mystery: there’s plenty to chew on for the next group video chat.

The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst
Read by Alex Jennings, 17hrs 13mins
Winner of the 2004 Booker Prize, The Line of Beauty is the kind of novel you fall in love with by a French swimming pool in July. Though the idea of a summer holiday is little more than a fantasy right now, it’s still a treat to be swept away in this rich tale of class politics, sex and drugs in 1980s Thatcher Britain.

American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins
Read by Yareli Arizmendi, 16hrs 54mins
A breakneck thriller with a social conscience, American Dirt follows a woman’s attempt to illegally cross the US-Mexico border with her young son, all the while pursued by a violent drug cartel. Get it into you before the inevitable Hollywood adaptation.

Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry
Read by Aidan Kelly, 7hrs 58mins
Set in the 19th-century American west, Days Without End is a love story of two men fighting through the Indian and civil wars. With elegant lyrical prose, spectacular set-pieces, and quiet moments of tender hope, it is a ludicrously good book.

One Day, by David Nicholls
Read by Anna Bentinck, 16hrs 25mins
Nostalgia is a powerful thing at the best of times. Our current set of circumstances, however, has intensified the experience to something akin to a drug. In One Day, David Nicholls hooks it straight to our veins. Few people write about being young and in love as well as Nicholls, although beware: you’ll be left in a heaving, sobbing heap.

The Second Sleep, by Robert Harris
Read by Roy McMillan, 9hrs 21mins
In 1468, a young priest travels to a remote English village to conduct a funeral and becomes entangled in his predecessor’s obsession with the past. Robert Harris’s new book brilliantly turns the historical thriller on its head, resulting in an unexpectedly sombre reflection on the fragility of civilisation.

Olive, Again, by Elizabeth Strout
Read by Kimberly Farr, 12hrs 14mins
The follow-up to the sublime Olive Kitteridge sees the titular Olive navigate life’s choppy waters in her later years. Elizabeth Strout has created one of modern fiction’s great characters, and Kimberly Farr does an excellent job bringing her to life.

The Stand, by Stephen King
Read by Grover Gardner, 47hrs 47mins
When a deadly flu pandemic kills 99 per cent of the world’s population, the few remaining survivors are drawn into an epic struggle of good versus evil. A sprawling tale set in a desolate North America; it is brilliantly delivered by Grover Gardner, one of the best narrators in the business.

HISTORY

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, by Hallie Rubenhold
Read by Louise Brealey, 10hrs 20mins
Jack the Ripper is the most famous serial killer in history, but could you name any of his victims? Historically and inaccurately described as “prostitutes”, they all lived varied and fascinating lives before dying by the same hand. A superbly researched and heart-breaking look at life in Victorian London.

The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean, by David Abulafia
Read by Jonathan Keeble, 26hrs 20mins
Originally published in 2011 to wide critical acclaim, The Great Sea has only recently been released as an audiobook. David Abulafia’s magisterial history of the Mediterranean, spanning more than 5,000 years, from early settlements to modern tourism, it is wonderfully read by veteran narrator Jonathan Keeble.

Arabs: A 3,000-Year History of Peoples, Tribes and Empires, by Tim Mackintosh-Smith
Read by Ralph Lister, 25hrs 34mins
With a title like that, you know what you’re in for. The real surprise here, though, is how engaging it all is. The book’s greatest strength lies in its exploration of Arabic language and culture as opposed to the standard focus on Islam.

Shakespeare in a Divided America, by James Shapiro
Read by Fred Sanders, 9hrs 11mins
James Shapiro, author of the excellent 1599: A Year in the Life of William
Shakespeare, turns his critical eye to the bard’s unlikely influence on American history. This sort of thing can often feel gimmicky, with the author’s ideas clumsily shoe-horned into a wider narrative, but here it feels urgent and more importantly, convincing.

Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History, by Ben Aaronovitch
Read by James Langton, 14hrs 25mins
This seems like an apt time to revisit Ben Aaronovitch’s superb examination of why people believe in conspiracy theories. It’s easy to laugh at “flat-Earthers” or moon-landing deniers, but they are part of a wider, insidious trend of confusing truth with fiction. If you’ve recently wondered why someone would decide their efforts in this difficult time should be spent setting fire to 5G towers, this book is for you.

CLASSICS

The Plague, by Albert Camus
Read by James Jenner, 10hrs 52mins
Is now really the best time to be listening to The Plague? That depends on how existentially rattled you’ve become in lockdown. Set in a fictional Algerian town decimated by plague, it asks how we might make sense of something so terrifying. By encouraging us to communally confront our own mortality, it is a strangely comforting experience.

Dune, by Frank Herbert
Read by Scott Brick, Orlagh Cassidy, et al, 21hrs 2mins
One of the pillars of modern science-fiction, Frank Herbert’s Dune remains a masterpiece of imaginative story-telling. It can be a little impenetrable at first, with prose liberally smattered with words like Muad’dib and melange, but once it clicks it becomes obsessive listening. With a full cast and background music, this is closer to a radio play than a conventional audiobook, but it works.

Moby Dick, by Herman Melville
Read by Frank Muller, 21hrs 19mins
You’ll always find excuses to not read Moby Dick. It’s time to bite the bullet. Sure, it’s deeply philosophical. And it’s so steeped in symbolism and metaphor it can mean a million different things to a million different people. But therein lies the beauty. You’ll be surprised at how accessible and entertaining it is.

Ulysses, by James Joyce
Read by Jim Norton, 27hrs 16mins
Listen to the purists wail! There are some who would have you believe that listening to an audiobook is an inferior pursuit. That it is somehow “cheating”, or less challenging than reading. Pay them no mind. Enjoy your books however you want, and if an audiobook removes the barrier of intimidation for a book like Ulysses, all the better.

FAMILY LISTENS

Grimm Tales for Young and Old, by Philip Pullman
Read by Samuel West, 10hrs 24mins
Philip Pullman’s masterful retelling of 50 enchanting tales from the Brothers Grimm. Old favourites such as Rapunzel and Snow White are presented alongside much lesser-known stories; all told with beautiful, flowing prose that begs to be read aloud. Beware, though; some of these tales might be far darker than you remember, and a little too upsetting for younger ears.

Mythos, by Stephen Fry
Read by Stephen Fry, 15hrs 25mins
Older children will delight in hearing the tales of ancient Greek gods and monsters for the first time. Parents will marvel at how deeply these myths have pervaded our consciousness and shared culture. The stories are read with wit and warmth by author Stephen Fry.

Mary Poppins, by PL Travers
Read by Olivia Colman, 3hrs 51mins
Back in the not-too-distant past (that now feels like a lifetime ago), this would have been the perfect audiobook for a family road trip. Oh, to be driving out from the ferry at Cherbourg, the whole family light-headed with excitement, as Olivia Colman’s wonderful, clipped delivery regales you with the warmly familiar tale of the Banks children and their magical nanny.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, by JRR Tolkien
Read by Rob Inglis, 19hrs 53mins
For many children, reading The Lord of the Rings is like stepping across the Rubicon. The delirious and limitless potential of literature is finally understood, and there’s no going back. The world described in these pages is so fully realised, so exciting, so moving, it remains a completely unique celebration of imagination.

Saoirse Ronan, Laura Dern, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh and Eliza Scanlen in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. The full cast of the 2019 film came together for the audiobook version. Photograph: Wilson Webb/Sony Pictures via AP
Saoirse Ronan, Laura Dern, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh and Eliza Scanlen in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. The full cast of the 2019 film came together for the audiobook version. Photograph: Wilson Webb/Sony Pictures via AP

Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott
Read by full cast, 12hrs 15mins
Fetch more fuel for the stove and gather the children; it’s time for a story. Led by Laura Dern, who played Marmee in Greta Gerwig’s recently perfect adaptation, this is a full-cast reading of a beloved classic. Officially making families cry since 1868.

NON-FICTION AND BIOGRAPHY

The Body: A Guide for Occupants, by Bill Bryson
Read by Bill Bryson, 14hrs 47mins
Listening to Bill Bryson read his latest book is a thoroughly enjoyable if at times exhausting experience. There are so many facts, anecdotes and humorous asides it is hard to keep up, but you will be left with a newfound reverence and appreciation for the monumentally complicated lump of animated meat you currently inhabit.

Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor E Frankl
Read by Simon Vance, 4hrs 44mins
Let’s be honest, we’ve all been doing a little soul-searching lately. It’s hard not to when the rug has been pulled so definitively from under us. Let this book guide your thoughts. Based on Frankl’s brutal experiences in a Nazi concentration camp, it is a hopeful meditation on how we ascribe meaning to our lives.

This Is Not Propaganda, by Peter Pomerantsev
Read by Leighton Pugh, 8hrs 3mins
In his previous book Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, Peter Pomerantsev took us on an extraordinary and thrilling tour of modern Russia. His follow-up is an equally eye-opening investigation into our new disinformation age, exploring everything from Twitter revolutionaries to Vladimir Putin’s insidious propaganda machine.

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, by Shoshana Zuboff
Read by Nicol Zanzarella, 24hrs 16mins
We are living in extraordinary times. How many times have you heard that over the past two months? But even before the dark age of coronavirus, we were living in extraordinary times. Our lives have become so entwined and dependent on technology that powerful companies now know so much about us they can predict and control our behaviour with terrifying accuracy. An incredibly well-researched book, if at times a little dense.

Beastie Boys Book, by Adam Horovitz & Michael Diamond
Read by full cast, 12hrs 42mins
It’s no surprise that Beastie Boys Book was Rolling Stone’s 2018 Audiobook of the Year. It’s a chaotic and riotous retelling of their career and friendship read by the band themselves and a remarkable cast including Ben Stiller, Steve Buscemi, Kim Gordon and Bette Midler.

COMEDY

Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, by David Sedaris
Read by David Sedaris, 6hrs 25mins
You know that game where you pick five dinner party guests, dead or alive? After listening to Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, David Sedaris will shoot to the top of your list. Plus he’s still alive, which is always nice.

Cunk on Everything, by Philomena Cunk
Read by Philomena Cunk, 5hrs 38mins
The highlight of Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe was always Philomena Cunk, the deadpan comedy persona of Diane Morgan. Here she takes her gift for asking beautifully absurd questions to new heights in the form of a modern encyclopaedia. In her own words, “This book is great because it covers everything in existence apart from the 95 per cent of stuff not worth bothering with.”

Scottish comedian Brian Limond, aka Limmy, delivers a disconcerting and shockingly honest account of his life and struggles with mental health.
Scottish comedian Brian Limond, aka Limmy, delivers a disconcerting and shockingly honest account of his life and struggles with mental health.

Surprisingly Down to Earth, and Very Funny: My Autobiography, by Limmy
Read by Limmy, 8hrs 7mins
In more ways than one, this is an extraordinary book. Rather than writing the usual “comedy memoir”, Brian Limond, aka Limmy, has delivered a disconcerting and shockingly honest account of his life and struggles with mental health. Bracing discussions of suicide, self-harm, drug-abuse, and alcoholism are all shot through with wisdom and humour. Doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs. It’s hilarious.

Bossypants, by Tina Fey
Read by Tina Fey, 5hrs 32mins
For a memoir, this is remarkably devoid of personal detail. By the end you will be no closer to understanding who Tina Fey is. But when you’re having so much fun, who cares? Filled with top-drawer anecdotes and caustic observations on being a woman in the entertainment industry, Bossypants charts her journey from weird introvert nerd to comedy royalty.

The Incomplete Tim Key, by Tim Key
Read by Tim Key, 2hrs 52mins
A poem picked at random from The Incomplete Tim Key: “Barry went to the shops and bought everything he needed for the rest of his life. The carrier bags were so heavy. He got chatting with Mrs York on the way home and, after 20 minutes or so, the handles sliced his fingers off.” If you don’t find that funny, this book isn’t for you. For everyone else, you have 299 more poems to enjoy in this absurdly brilliant collection.