Books are great. They're really, really good. You can flip through them, they smell great when they're fresh off the shelf, and if a mate who borrowed one off you folds the corners of the pages over, then you're legally allowed to break one of their fingers.
But audiobooks are great too. For one thing, there aren't any pages to fold the corners of. For another, they're going through a revolution right now, with A-list names signing up to read both new releases and classics from the literary canon. Plus, you get all kinds of extra bits and pieces thrown in for good measure.
In fact – and please don't tell Martin Amis we said this – some audiobooks are even better than the actual books. Listen to these and tell us we're wrong. We've collected the best of 2020 at the top here, and underneath are some of the all-time best.
The Louder I Will Sing by Lee Lawrence
It's now 35 years since Cherry Groce was shot by police when they raided her home in Brixton. Her son, the then 11-year-old Lee, could only watch on as she was falsely pronounced dead on the news, and as anger in the community at yet more police brutality towards Black Londoners turned into two days of violence and destruction, with petrol bombs launched and cars torched in the streets. After the riots were over, though, the aftershocks continued for Lee. Since the bullet had shattered his mum's spine, he became her full-time carer while fighting to get the police to admit they had done anything wrong. It was a fight that would take nearly 30 years. This is urgent, uplifting stuff.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley
Originally published in 1965, this new reading of the civil rights crusader features Laurence Fishburne voicing Malcolm X's telling of his life story. It's a perfect combination: the clarity and fervency of Malcolm X's convictions get the full power and heft they're due thanks to Fishburne's gravitas. As told to journalist and author Haley, this is the full outline of how Malcolm X's theories on Black pride, Black nationalism and pan-Africanism link together and formed a worldview which echoes as resoundingly 50 years on.
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
We like Will Poulter a lot at Esquire, and he's a very good fit to read Dostoyevsky's classic psychological thriller. In poverty-wracked St Petersburg, a young man needs money desperately – so desperately that he's willing to kill pawnbroker for her cash. What he's not ready for, though, is the spiritual and mental agony he's about to go through. Despite being nearly 150 years old, the sharpness of Dostoyevsky's portrait of the mind's workings still feels very contemporary.
Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story by Mollie Gregory
Gregory's 2015 history telling the hidden story of women in the film industry is newly rendered in audio. In the very earliest days of the cinema industry, women were involved in every area of production, including being able to take on some of the most dangerous and thrilling stunts captured on film. However, as things became more and more lucrative, women were edged to the margins of the most powerful positions, and even stunt work started to be done by men in drag. Gregory interviews 65 stuntwomen who tell the story of a century of their fascinating and critical work, and how they eventually forced their way back to the forefront of the industry.
Coming Undone: A Memoir by Terri White
In 2012, Terri White pitched up in New York to take over as editor at Time Out magazine. Everything seemed set for her to take on the world, but things didn't turn out that way. Lost in the city, she starts losing her grip on herself and tumbling out of too many bars she can't go back to. Mornings start to take on a familiar rhythm: "Wake up, panic, feel guilty and/or ashamed, vomit, shower, vomit (sometimes in the shower), dress, paint my face, pour eye drops in my eyes to dissolve away the lightning streaks and shoots of red."
Things grow more and more fractured and strained until White ends up in an emergency room after an overdose. The roots of her unhappiness go all the way back to her childhood, and the vividness and dark clarity with which she plots both her unravelling and the gradual rebuilding that led her back to contentment makes this a uniquely compelling and raw listening experience. There's a streak of black humour throughout too, though. White, now the editor of Empire magazine, reads her own story. It's difficult to hear sometimes, but the quality of the writing always shines.
Dear NHS: A Collection of Stories to Say Thank You
Saying thanks to the NHS never really stops being a good thing to do, but now more than ever – as every single advert has had it for the last four months – it's a particularly good thing to do. This is an anthology edited by Adam Kay, former doctor and author of This is Going to Hurt, and it features contributors reading their own letters of thanks to the NHS.
The list of people chipping in is extremely handy too: 75 notables including Queenie author Candice Carty-Williams, Michael Palin, Emilia Clarke, Reni Eddo-Lodge, Kathy Burke and Paul McCartney, whose mum was a NHS midwife in post-war Liverpool, tell their stories of what the NHS means to them. Money from each download will go to NHS Charities Together too.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
The Vignes twins look identical, but over the course of 40 years the sisters' lives couldn't be more different. Desiree and Stella run away at 16, desperate to escape the small black community they've grown up in, but one sister returns home and marries a black man, while the other starts passing for white. The Vanishing Half tracks them over the decades as their lives start to mirror each other, and Stella's covert life comes undone.
Optimism Over Despair by Noam Chomsky
Everything feels a bit overwhelming at the moment, but as this new reading of Chomsky's 2017 book points out, there are reasons to be cheerful. The nub of it is that you've got a choice over how you react to the state of the world: you can despair, and help make the consequences you fear become inevitable; or you can buck up and help sort things out. Which is very easy to say when you're Noam Chomsky, but still.
You People by Nikita Lalwani
You've probably been to Pizzeria Vesuvio, or somewhere a lot like it, loads of times. It's an Italian restaurant somewhere in London, and one staffed by Sri Lankan pizzaiolos and run by undocumented migrants. The man at the top is the mysterious Tuli, and people in need of a place to start again gravitate towards his restaurant.
You People follows Nia, a 19-year-old who's trying to leave her home in Wales behind, and Shan, who fleed the Sri Lankan civil war, as they try to reckon with their family ties. Things become more and more complex as the truth of Tuli's shady operation starts to become clear. It's a story about kindness and guilt, and how for anyone can be expected to carry both with them.
Two Stories by Sally Rooney
If you've mainlined the BBC's Normal People adaptation and already whipped through Rooney's back catalogue, try these two short stories which pull at the same threads of uncertain attraction, miscommunication and tentative flirting which run through Normal People and Conversations With Friends. In Mr Salary, Sukie visits former flatmate Nathan – who's 15 years older than her, and whose sister was married to an uncle of hers – in Dublin for Christmas to escape her parents, while in Colour and Light a fireworks display sparks a connection between two strangers.
Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
By dint of being being written by an Irish woman in her twenties, Dolan's debut has drawn a lot of comparisons with Sally Rooney's Normal People and Conversations With Friends. There's a dry wit that's all Dolan's own here though. Dubliner Ava heads to Hong Kong to teach English, and ends up getting involved with flash banker Julian. Things get more complicated, though, when a lawyer called Edith starts to take Ava to the theatre and the pair start inching towards a relationship of their own. What does Ava want more: Edith, or Julian's massive flat?
Ramble Book by Adam Buxton
Given how big his podcast is, it almost seems perverse to experience Buxton's memoirs via an actual printed book. The emphasis here is about growing up in the Eighties, parenthood, losing one's parents, and, inevitably, David Bowie. The audio version is peppered with jingles and interludes that make it feel more like a gigantic podcast in spirit, and then there's an extra podcast-length chat with his old pal and former podcast co-host Joe Cornish on the end for good measure.
A Little History of Poetry by John Carey
Reaching back all the way to the earliest surviving fragment of poetry from 4,000 years ago, this is the pared-down version of how poems and poetry were shaped by and came to shape how humanity saw itself all around the world. It tends to stick to the canon for the most part – this is only a little history after all – but Maya Angelou, Marianne Moore and Derek Walcott get a look in alongside yer Shakespeares, yer Chaucers and yer Yeatses. Above anything else, Carey's history emphasises the vital, constantly shifting quality that makes poetry so mysterious and compelling.
Weather by Jenny Offill
At under four hours, Weather brings a brisk breeze of observations about contemporary life via the letters which librarian Lizzie Benson has to answer. She's been roped in by an increasingly reclusive podcaster who's bombarded by left-wingers worried about environmental collapse and right-wingers who think Western civilisation's crumbling. Can Lizzie help these people, her mentor, or her unstable family?
Under Solomon Skies by Berni Sorga-Millwood
The idea of getting lost at sea is one of the scariest things there is. No water, no food, no prospect of rescue: it's terrifying. Childhood friends Toni and Jack find themselves in exactly that predicament in this novel based on a true story. Set on – and between – the Solomon Islands, it's not just a survival adventure in the vein of Adrift or All Is Lost, but a poignant reflection on climate change and humanity's role in the great global ecosystem.
Letters of Note: Love by Shaun Usher
If you're a follower of Letters of Note on Twitter, you'll know that Shaun Usher's careful curation of letters to, from and between notable historic figures is endlessly fascinating: from the carefully crafted to the tersely dashed-off, they're a window into an unguarded moment in someone's life. This audiobook collects letters touching on the joy and pain of love, featuring wisdom from Frida Kahlo, Simone de Beauvoir, Nelson Mandela and more, read by actors including Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong and Toby Jones.
A Bit of a Stretch: The Diaries of a Prisoner by Chris Atkins
You've presumably heard that the prison system in the UK is in a bit of a state, but for all the talk of overcrowding, awful conditions, drug use and woeful health provisions nothing seems to be changing. This insider's account of a spell inside brings home exactly what it's like to go to jail. When filmmaker Chris Atkins was sentenced to five years in HMP Wandsworth for tax fraud, he found prison as riven by class and privilege as the outside. His account is funny, touching, revelatory, and very timely.
Kraftwerk: Future Music from Germany by Uwe Schütte
It's 50 years since Ralf Hütter and the late Florian Schneider began to explore post-war Germany's hopeful, slightly uncertain recovery and renewal through its everyday objects and experiences – the autobahn, computers, railways, power stations, bicycles – and in the process helped invent electro, techno and hip hop. Get to know them – and their music with this superlative new biography.
You're Not Listening by Kate Murphy
It often feels like modern life is just a long trudge down a corridor full of people screaming at each other, but there's a way out of the constant churn of anger and wilful misunderstanding. This sounds like a self-help book, but it's a lot more interesting than all that: New York Times contributor Kate Murphy takes pointers from super-listeners from all walks of life, from priests and CIA interrogators to bartenders and improv comedians, to get to the bottom of how we can listen to each other properly and stop being so terrified of silence and human contact that we immediately grab our phones the moment there's even a remote chance we might be left alone with our brains.
Beginner's Spanish by The Superpolyglotbros
The twins who run this podcast, Matthew and Michael Youlden, know more than 20 languages between them. If you're going to be able to say more than "Dos cervezas por favor" by the time you go to Primavera, you're going to need their help. Their gentle badinage elevates this above the fairly boring rote learning you'd get from your average language series, and makes it feel more like you're being gently coaxed through a lesson by a pair of kindly tutors. They do occasionally sound like they're teaching Spanish to someone who's had a very serious head injury, but if you're having to start with learning the Spanish for 'the', then that's probably fair enough. You should be able to hold a solid conversation by the end of the first of its 30 sessions, though.
The Age of Revolution by Eric Hobsbawm
The Marxist historian died in 2013, but Hachette Audio's brand new readings of his key works, covering the making of modern Europe from 1789 on, have given him a new lease on life. The Age of Revolution from 1962 spans from 1789 and the beginnings of the French overthrow of the monarchy to the republican revolts across Europe in 1848, and takes in the Industrial Revolution in Britain too.
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
If you've started but not finished this big-picture treatise on the evolution of humanity, don't worry. You are not alone. It feels good at the beginning, doesn't it? All that stuff about apes and common ancestors and whatnot. Then suddenly you realise you've read the same paragraph about wheat seven times. Don't feel guilty. It can get a bit dense. The audiobook version is a far more effective way of mainlining its lessons straight into your brain.
This Is Going To Hurt by Adam Kay
The runaway publishing success of these diaries from Kay's time as a doctor in obstetrics and gynaecology – brats and twats, as he puts it – is brilliant as it is, but you don't realise how much you're missing the author's drier-than-dry delivery until you've listened to it. Kay's second career is as a comedy writer, but he's a consummate performer too. The audiobook has extra diary entries and a new afterword too.
I, Partridge: We Need To Talk About Alan by Alan Partridge
Between the sitcoms, the radio shows and the one-off specials, this memoir telling the life story of North Norfolk's foremost disc jock might be the Partridge-Industrial Complex's zenith. The book, which is densely packed with petty score-settling, bullish attempts to rewrite history and asides about Eamonn Holmes, is endlessly re-readable. But it's even better when Steve Coogan reads it in character. It's worth listening to just for Alan reeling off his longlist of names for his house: "The Skirmishes, Apache, Tomahawk, Sceptre House, The Cinnamons – it's just a lovely ingredient – Classic House, The Classics, Manor House, Bentley House, Large Cottage."
Normal People by Sally Rooney
The runaway success of Sally Rooney's novels has landed her with the slightly cumbersome tag of 'voice of the millennials', and there's definitely a universality to the story of two teenagers who get together and break up, but whose lives weave around each other when they go to university. But Connell and Marianne are so much a product of the time and place they come of age in – County Sligo in Ireland, during the economic crash of the late 2000s – that hearing Clare-born actor Aoife McMahon's reading adds an extra layer of understanding about where they come from, and how that creates the people they become.
Mortimer and Whitehouse: Gone Fishing by Bob Mortimer and Paul Whitehouse
The joy of the TV series in which Mortimer and Whitehouse potter about, chat a bit and attempt to catch some fish is mostly down to the feeling that you're eavesdropping on two old friends mucking about. There's even more of that in the audio version of their book, which feels less like your usual voicing than a series of short readings, loosely lashed together with rambling, podcast-style interludes in which the pair chat about their friendship, their heart operations and their lives so far. Oh, and fish. Sometimes.
The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla
An array of voices from modern Britain are collected in this series of essays about race and identity. They're filtered through the lens of the 'good' and 'bad' migrant narratives with which we tend to be presented: that people who move to the UK, and their offspring, are either coming here to steal your job and scrounge on benefits, or they're superhuman athletes, doctors or parents of Great British Bake Off winners. The questions asked across these essays are huge but handled with humour, delicacy and bite. Read aloud, by the authors, actors, comedians and journalists who experienced each essay's subject firsthand, they become that much more urgent and affecting.
The Science Fiction Collection by HG Wells
Most audiobooks are read by their authors. Which is nice. But with classics, the presents a problem – they're generally dead. For canny audiobook producers, this is also an opportunity: instead of some mumbling author, why not get Hollywood's finest to breathe new life our greatest works of literature? This HG Wells collection is a great introduction to the form. Five of his most famous works are rendered by British acting's top brass, including David Tennant reading The War of the Worlds, Sophie Okenedo doing The Invisible Man and Hugh Bonneville reading The Time Machine. Plus, as little extra, there's a foreword from Hostel director Eli Roth.
Ghost Stories by MR James
Around the turn of the 20th century, Cambridge scholar Montague Rhodes James would invite students and friends to the Provost's Lodge at King's College on Christmas Eve. The chilling stories he read them, about malevolent spirits with terrible, ancient powers being accidentally unleashed to hound unwary mortals, became classics. His story collections are great, but for the full Jamesian experience, you need to experience the tales as they were written – to be performed. Sir Derek Jacobi is on hand to give it the necessary gravitas.
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