A Brief History of the Audiobooks That Got Me This Far Through the Pandemic

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A Brief History of the Audiobooks That Got Me This Far Through the Pandemic

It wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that, for most of 2020, I lost the ability to read.

I certainly wasn’t alone in this. Across Twitter, throughout Slack, within the digital pages of every Substack, Bulletin, and TinyLetter that filled my inbox, it seemed like anyone whose identity had ever been informed, even in part, by their love of reading found themselves, before the year was out, at a complete literary loss.

And no wonder! Between the onset of a global disease pandemic, a rampaging cascade of natural disasters brought on by climate change, and the very real possibility that American democracy was entering its death throes, vanishingly little emotional room was left for even the most leisurely of reading habits.

Still, I wanted to read. Or at least, I wanted to want to. The real world was an increasingly harrowing and unreasoned place to be stuck in; the chance to escape, if only briefly, into worlds crafted with care by skilled (and well-reasoning!) writers was something I actively yearned for.

And so (perhaps unsurprisingly) I turned to audiobooks. It was slow going, at first—added to the fact that I no longer had the daily commutes I’d used to burn through books in the Before Times, I also had to come to terms with the fact that my anxiety-addled brain was going to need me to lean more on nostalgia than ambition. Eventually, however, I was able to make lockdown listening sustainable. I listened while I walked my dogs. I listened while I puzzled. I listened while I baked. I listened, maybe most crucially, while sitting and doing nothing at all. (Anything to avoid doomscrolling.) I didn’t listen all the time—my reading pace is still less than half of what it was in my pre-pandemic peak—but I listened enough. And thus (perhaps just as unsurprisingly) I’ve found myself nearing the last gasp of 2021 with a fairly robust list of really excellent audio-reads.

To that end, I’ve picked out 10 of the very best things I’ve listened to since signing off in March of 2020. Some titles are old, some are new, but—whether you’re in a reading slump or not—all are worth a listen.

Note: Titles are listed in order of their runtime, shortest to longest.

The Murderbot Diaries Series, by Martha Wells (in its ongoing entirety)

Narrator: Kevin R. Free
Run time: 3-4 hours on average (with Book 5 clocking in at 12 hours 48 minutes)
Audible | Libro.fm | Overdrive | Soundcloud

The ne plus ultra of listening experiences (and arguably the thing that finally flipped my reading switch back into permanent On mode), Martha Wells’ wildly beloved Murderbot project subsumed not only me, but just about everyone else I’ve come into contact with since inhaling the six-book series over the course of a single weekend in this past May. My friends are obsessed. My parents are obsessed. My parents’ hard-to-impress siblings are obsessed. A perfect read regardless of format, the series carries a particular zing in its audio version, where narrator Kevin R. Free has mastered Murderbot’s particular (and particularly compelling) blend of aggrieved competence, panicked social bonding and begrudging bot/human empathy. A pandemic-listening bonus: all but one of the titles in the series clock in under four hours.

Mango & Peppercorns: A Memoir of Food, an Unlikely Family, and the American Dream by Tung Nguyen, Katherine Manning and Lyn Nguyen (with Elisa Ung)

Narrator: Quyen Ngo, Cindy Kay and VyVy Nguyen
Run time: 5 hours 16 minutes
Audible | Libro.fm | Overdrive | Soundcloud

I’ve never been to Miami, let alone eaten at Hy Vong, Tung Nguyen and Katherine Manning’s legendary Vietnamese restaurant, but even still, I was entranced by the women’s shared story. Mango & Peppercorns is brief, as far as memoirs go, especially considering its scope, aiming as it does to chronicle not just the rise of Hy Vong, but also the fall of Saigon (and everything else that led to Tung landing, as a newly pregnant refugee, in Kathy’s big Miami house), but in that brevity, it packs a punch. As trenchant as Nguyen and Manning’s story is—especially now, as America struggles, in the face of increasingly numerous refugee crises, to live up to its moral obligations to the rest of the world—I imagine it would be plenty affecting in print. That said, narrators Quyen Ngo, Cindy Kay and VyVy Nguyen bring such depth and linguistic precision to their reading that I’d be hard-pressed not to recommend that anyone interested in Tung and Kathy’s story at least try the audio version first.

No One Goes Alone by Erik Larson

Narrator: Julian Rhind-Tutt and Erik Larson
Run time: 7 hours 35 minutes
Audible | Libro.fm | Overdrive | Soundcloud

Despite the fact that audio dramas can be traced back to at least the 1880s, Audible has, in recent years, basically been the only “audio original” publisher in town. With the audio-only release of No One Goes Alone, though—the first work of fiction from journalist and narrative non-fiction writer Erik Larson—Penguin Random House has made a strong argument that we shouldn’t imagine that will always be the case. A ghost story rooted in the same vein of spooky historical fact Larson is known for trafficking in (see: The Devil in the White City, The Splendid and the Vile and Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania), No One Goes Alone doesn’t just work best on audio, you see—it works only on audio. Ghost stories, after all, are meant to be told aloud… preferably in the dark, preferably in as intimate a setting as possible. And what better intimacy, truly, than audiobook pro Julian Rhind-Tutt whispering Larson’s tale directly in the listener’s ear? You don’t have to listen to it in the dark, of course, but even as a self-professed scaredy-cat, I’m happy to say that I went ahead and did. And if I can survive, so can you.

Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch by Rivka Galchen

Narrator: Natasha Soudek
Run time: 8 hours 47 minutes
Audible | Libro.fm | Overdrive | Soundcloud

Taking a (mostly) fictional lens to the surreal imprisonment of Katharina Kepler, mother of German astronomer/mathematician/astrologer/natural philosopher, Johannes Kepler, following her being accused of witchcraft by her drunk and small-minded neighbors, Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch is the kind of book that unfolds with such weird unpredictability that it all but rewires your brain. Every character is weird, in ways that are at once wholly singular—the story takes place in 1618, after all—and entirely, eerily familiar—mortally dangerous populist zealotry in the midst of a plague, anyone? Only adding to this eerie (un)familiarity is narrator Natasha Soudek, who gives each character in Katharina’s story—which is arranged as a series of monologues transcribed and gathered by Katharina’s reclusive (but literate) neighbor, Simon—so much nuanced, hitching naturalism that they feel infuriatingly real. It’s both transifixing and destabilizing. It’s the best thing I listened to all winter.

The Postscript Murders (Harbinder Kaur, Book 2) by Elly Griffiths

Narrator: Nina Wadia
Run time: 9 hours 8 minutes
Audible | Libro.fm | Overdrive | Soundcloud

At once a sequel to 2018’s The Stranger Diaries and the official launch of DS Harbinder Kaur (“the best gay Sikh detective in West Sussex”) as a series lead, Elly Griffiths’ The Postscript Murders is like the British version of Only Murders in the Building—only, way before Only Murders in the Building. Just replace the youthful Tim Kono with an elderly lady with a genius for inventing grisly (fictional) murders, the gun that shot him with an age-appropriate heart attack, and Martin Short, Steve Martin and Selena Gomez with a bachelor neighbor, an ex-monk cafe owner, and a young Ukrainian health aide, and really, it’s the same story. Add in the expertly measured Nina Wadia as narrator, and you’ve got a solid British murder mystery listen on your hands. I loved it.

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

Narrator: Christina Moore
Run time: 9 hours 31 minutes
Audible | Libro.fm | Overdrive | Soundcloud

One of a handful of re-listens I did in the past year, The Girl Who Drank the Moon stands out not just for its soothing narration—reader Cristina Moore strikes to perfect chord for each character she’s tasked with, from old witches to baby dragons to swamp monsters as old as magic, itself—but also for the fact that, at the very same time as the darkness that had been choking the book’s characters for generations was finally lifting, letting hope and light and love back in, I just happened to be inching my way through the long line of cars at one of FEMA’s mass vaccination sites, on the first truly beautiful spring day of the year. 10,000,000/10, would absolutely recommend.

The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet by John Green

Narrator: John Green
Run time: 10 hours 3 minutes
Audible | Libro.fm | Overdrive | Soundcloud

Few pieces of art moved me as much this past year as did The Anthropocene Review, young adult novelist John Green’s first foray into non-fiction. Based on his long(ish)-running podcast of the same name, The Anthropocene Reviewed is a collection of mini-essays that work as both encyclopedic “reviews” of human-influenced phenomena, and flashes of memoir. With each track comprising a single entry, Green reading at a slightly more measured pace than in his podcast (and a much more measured one than in his Crash Course videos), TAR is ideally suited for slow listening—say, a single track per night, as a way of winding down without doomscrolling. (To be completely honest, despite having started listening to this one early this summer, I’ve yet to make it all the way through—still savoring!) You might laugh (“Penguins of Madagascar”), you’ll almost certainly cry (“Auld Lang Syne”), and you’ll definitely realize you’re learning (and immediately forgetting) enough that you’ll want to go out and get a physical copy to take active notes in (“Humanity’s Temporal Range”). Regardless, you’ll be happy you pressed Play.

All the Lonely People, by Mike Gayle

Narrator: Ben Onwukwe
Run time: 12 hours 20 minutes
Audible | Libro.fm | Overdrive | Soundcloud

It might feel a bit too on the nose to recommend a story about a lonely elderly man who’s spent years more or less trapped in his own apartment, socially isolated from everyone in his immediate vicinity, with the only thing even remotely worth looking forward to the occasional long-distance phone call with his daughter on the other side of the world, but nevertheless, here we are, Mike Gayle’s lovely All the Lonely People in proverbial hand. Narrated with craggily deep gravity by British film actor Ben Onwukwe, All the Lonely People straddles the line between charming and poignant, its present-tense “Now” tale following ornery old widower Hubert Bird as he races to make the friend-filled life he’s been lying to his daughter about having real, before she shows up for a months-long visit, while its past-tense “Then” story traces his path migrating to Britain from the Caribbean as part of the “Windrush Generation” in 1957. Crossing both generations and an entire ocean, Onwukwe is tasked not just with a plethora of accents, but also with distinguishing “Then” Hubert (and friends) from his “Now” version—a responsibility he takes on with aplomb. Ultimately as touching as it is funny, All the Lonely People is the rare slice of socially isolated life that will make you feel more connected to the world than less.

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton

Narrator: Janina Edwards, Bahni Turpin, James Langton, André De Shields, Dennis Boutsikaris, Steve West, Gabra Zackman & a full cast
Run time: 13 hours 17 minutes
Audible | Libro.fm | Overdrive | Soundcloud

If Daisy Jones and the Six started the fake-rock-star-oral-history trend, Dawnie Walton’s The Final Revival of Opal & Nev has taken it to another level. Narrated, like Daisy Jones by an absolutely stacked full cast, Opal & Nev uses its made-up history formula to interrogate not only the unequal gender dynamics at work in the American rock scene in the late ’70s and early ’80s, but also the racial ones. With a cast helmed by Janina Edwards and Bahni Turpin—audiobook rockstars in their own right—The Final Revival of Opal & Nev made it easier to (almost) let go of all the concerts I’ve missed these past two years.

A Deadly Education & The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik

Narrator: Anisha Dadia
Run time: 10 hours 59 minutes/13 hours 27 minutes
Audible | Libro.fm | Overdrive | Soundcloud

I won’t lie to you—this time last year, barely a month out from A Deadly Education’s debut, I wouldn’t have bothered including it on a list like this. Not because it wasn’t good. It’s Naomi Novik, with a sharp-tongued narratorial assist from Anisha Dadia; of course it was good. But when I picked it up, it was with the presumption that it, like Novik’s two previous books (Uprooted and Spinning Silver), would be a standalone, which was truly all my barely recovered reading nerves could take. Reader: It wasn’t a standalone. Not only was it not a standalone, but it had one of the most nerve-jangling cliffhangers I’d read in years. It was very bad!

Thankfully, while A Deadly Education’s just-published sequel, The Last Graduate, also ends with a cliffhanger, the story it does tell, I am happy to say, is so soul-restoringly complete, I’ve welled up with feeling and gotten teary multiple times since finishing it. At this point, I don’t care that we’ve got a whole year to wait for the next installment to arrive—I’d recommend the first two in the Scholomance series to anyone and everyone, without reservation. They will (and this is not a joke) give you the kind of optimism about humanity that’s in too short a supply these days. Truly, if fantasy is even close to your thing, give this series a listen.

Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She
can be found @AlexisKG.