Perspective | Do some audiobooks leave you cold? Perhaps they were not meant to be.


Most print books are made into audiobooks. But should they be?

Some audio versions make hard going. “War and Peace,” for instance, has so many characters that, in listening to an audio version, I had to carry around a list to keep everyone straight. But there are more insoluble problems: Some books are simply not suited to the audio form — an atlas, for instance. (But then who is actually looking at atlases in the age of the internet?) Also, cookbooks: Unless you have a mind like a steel trap or count shorthand among your skills, an audio cookbook is going to be frustrating. Speech, too, seems to be on the way out, replaced by written electronic communication and emoji. Unsurprisingly, novels increasingly reflect this development, their pages awash with email and text messages. Translating these nonwords into spoken words is a hurdle that should perhaps be avoided altogether.

As a longtime audiobook reviewer, I have listened to thousands of hours of recorded books. Some of these books should have stayed on the page, and others, despite serious obstacles, successfully made the leap from print to sound. Here’s why.

The 10 best audiobooks of 2022

Janice Hallett’s “The Appeal” (Simon & Schuster, 12½ hours), published last year, has an intricate plot — facts become dubious, complications arise, characters develop in unexpected ways, a dead body shows up — that begs for a lot of backtracking, not an easy matter with an audiobook. Further, the story unfolds entirely in emails, texts, sticky notes and the like. These visual enhancements go invisible in audio, making it difficult at times to figure out whose words are whose. And then there are email headings, information the reader of the print version can take in at a glance. When conscientiously read out in audio — to, from, subject, date, time — email after email, it’s mind-numbing. Still, I will say that the narrators of the audiobook — Daniel Philpott, Aysha Kala, Rachel Adedeji and Sid Sagar — are brilliant at conveying the personalities of the characters whose endless missives they read.

Hallett’s new book, The Twyford Code” (Simon & Schuster, 11½ hours, available Jan. 24), is another book best scrutinized in print. It consists almost entirely of AI speech-to-text transcripts from recordings made on an iPhone as well as voice messages. On the page, the text includes codes signaling pauses, interference, inaudible speech and so on — which, fortunately, have been cut from the audio. But such unriveting matter as “DecipherIT time ref 52781277-0988837” and some 200 wearying transcript headings — audio file number, date, time, audio quality — are read out at length.

Hallett’s work is clever and inventive in ways that rely on, and play off, the page. The same is true of Laurence Sterne’s classicTristram Shandy,” the print version of which includes all sorts of visual mischief: blank pages, blacked-out pages, scribbles, dots and typographical chaos, to say nothing of great gobbets of Latin and French. Naxos has done a valiant job in its audio version (19 hours, narrated by Anton Lesser), including a PDF with an introduction and guide to the tracks and chapters — though that last feature is a bit Shandy-esque in that the chapter numbers don’t accord with those that appear on your phone screen. Oh, well. At least the audiobook, unlike the original print version, is kind enough to translate the French and Latin passages into English. Nonetheless, if you want to appreciate the full manic force of this novel, you will have to read it yourself.

Dealing with footnotes and endnotes is a pesky business for audiobooks. In the case of citations — all that “op. cit.,” “cf.” and “passim” business — dispensing with them is a mercy. But some audiobooks omit footnotes entirely, which is often a real loss. A Private Spy: The Letters of John le Carré” (Penguin, 16 hours) strikes the right balance, cutting fiddled citations but including the informative and entertaining. David Harewood and Florence Pugh, both gifted actors and narrators, serve as a tag team, Harewood reading the letters and handing off the footnotes and interstitial material to Pugh.

Siddhartha Mukherjee’s informative and wondrous The Song of the Cell: An Exploration of Medicine and the New Human” (Simon & Schuster, 16 hours), narrated by Dennis Boutsikaris, is supported by hundreds of footnotes and also includes countless illuminating diagrams and illustrations. In this case, none of this is lost, as the audiobook is accompanied by a vital 80-page PDF that includes the footnotes and graphics of the print version. Unfortunately, most audiobooks that should include such material don’t. William Dalrymple’s superb The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company” (Bloomsbury, 15¾ hours), narrated beautifully by Sid Sagar, does not include the dozens of arresting color-plate reproductions that greatly enhance the book.

So what about cookbooks? The best cookbooks for audio are those that are also memoirs or that tell stories as they go along. But if you want to use the recipes, guided by your ear, you are setting yourself an onerous task. The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book” (HarperAudio, 10⅔ hours), has, along with tales of Toklas’s life in France with Gertrude Stein (the book’s actual author), any number of recipes for dishes prepared for the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso. Happily, this audio version comes with a PDF of the recipes.

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Rufus Estes’ Good Things to Eat: The First Cookbook by an African-American Chef” (Tower Audiobooks, 5 hours), narrated by Darius Taylor, doesn’t come with a PDF, but the recipes are easy to hold in your head (and you can find them at Project Gutenberg). Born enslaved in 1857, Estes became a noted chef, catering to presidents, royalty and celebrities traveling on sumptuously fitted-out Pullman cars and ocean liners. The greatness of the book, however, doesn’t lie in the food but in the picture it gives of a vanished world, one that embraced butter and cream and knuckles of veal — to say nothing of crystallized cowslips, pig’s ears Lyonnaise, fried parsley (for Lent) and Estes’s once-famous Snippodoodles.

Katherine A. Powers reviews audiobooks every month for The Washington Post.

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