Audiobooks are a great alternative for those of us who spend the workday with our eyes glued to a computer screen. There are those days, after all, that our poor eyes are simply too strained to take in that bedside copy of Infinite Jest you’ve been meaning to finish. That said, audiobooks can be an expensive habit; sometimes they’re 25 or even 50 percent more expensive than the paperback version.
That’s where LibriVox comes in. Librivox offers “acoustical liberation of books in the public domain.” The non-profit is run entirely by volunteer voice-actors and offers hundreds of titles (from Dickens to Dostoevsky) in multiple languages, so long as they all fall under the proper requirements for U.S. public domain inclusion. Basically, you can catch up on all the classics you pretended to read in college during your morning commute or in those precious few hours your eyes aren’t trained on these glowing pixels.
You can browse titles at LibriVox yourself, or check out the following list of 15 preferred recordings compiled by us. From Y.A. antecedents to Renaissance sex diaries, price is no object:
1. Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais
Rabelais is considered by many to be the godfather of absurdist fiction. Gargantua and Pantagruel, one-fifth of a 16th century quintet, does not disappoint. It follows the (mostly violent and/or scatological) exploits of two mythical giants, replete with lists of wacky period insults that are bound to amuse.
Edited by Susan Coolidge, this audio collection of letters offers an intriguing peek into the working life of one of the English language’s most iconic novelists. Full of references to the writing of Sense and Sensibility, as well as Pride and Prejudice, think of The Letters of Jane Austen as the Victorian equivalent of the iTunes movie extras.
3. The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
One of the huge pluses of LibriVox is its expansive library of classic plays, such as Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Performed with full cast and sound-effects, you get all the perks of the bygone dramatic radio hour on your own time.
4. Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad
This lesser-known Conrad work is a rumored response to the ideas unpacked in Crime and Punishment. Conrad and Dostoevsky apparently detested one another, so why not pair a recording of Under Western Eyes with a recording of the Monk of Photius’ best work? Or maybe not-so-best work, depending on which side of the Conrad-Dostoevsky debate you come down on.
5. Knickerbocker’s History of New York, Vol. 1 by Washington Irving
Irving is enjoying somewhat of a pop cultural renaissance at the moment, what with the warm reception to Fox’s supernatural thriller Sleepy Hollow. But Irving wasn’t all ghosts and headless horsemen and things that go bump in the night. Download Knickerbocker’s History of New York for a fascinating (and satirical) look at early Empire State history.
6. Concerning the Spiritual in Art by Wassily Kandinsky
These writings prove that Kandinsky was much more than a painter. He was a thinker, a tormented existentialist, and Concerning the Spiritual in Art gives us a dazzling peek into his psyche.
7. Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
For the young-adult fictionavores out there, LibriVox offers a number of enticing recorded books, some of which are bedrock of the genre. For example, try this 1972 dramatization of Alice in Wonderland on for size.
8. The Heptameron of the Tales of Margaret, Queen of Navarre, Vol. 1 translated by George Saintsbury
This recording includes 72 salacious accounts from the life of Queen Margaret of Navarre (also known as Margaret of Angoulême). The 16th century diary is the precursor to Lena Dunham and Candace Bushnell, highlighting the rise of one of the Renaissance’s most powerful and sought after women.
9. Letters of Travel by Rudyard Kipling
Kipling was the original traveloguist. This 19th century collection of letters and diary entries spans the Englishman’s travels through the United States, Canada, Japan and Egypt, all in that signature, wry observational style of the man George Orwell described as “the prophet of British imperialism.”
10. The Eyes of the Movie by Harry Alan Potamkin
The Eyes of the Movie is a fascinating socialist critique of Hollywood and the early movie-making business by Potamkin, America’s first great film critic. It’s an eerie foreshadowing of the McCarthyist elements set to infiltrate mid-century Hollywood.
11. Venus and Adonis by William Shakespeare
Unfortunately, LibriVox is sorely lacking in dramatic renditions of Shakespeare plays and poems. But they do have a delightful recording of the lesser-known Venus and Adonis, a narrative poem about the love between the goddess Venus and the Earl of Southampton, a stand-in for the mythical Adonis.
12. Once on a Time by A. A. Milne
Of course, Milne is known for his more famous children’s works (The House at Pooh Corner, etc.), but Once on a Time is an equally lovely take on the classic fairytale, with a bit of political satire.
13. The Trail of the Hawk by Sinclair Lewis
LibriVox presents another opportunity to examine a lesser-known work of a gifted writer. Although not as widely read as Babbitt, Sinclair Lewis’ The Trail of the Hawk is a lighthearted account of the life of Carl Ericson, the son of Norwegian immigrants growing up in early 20th century New York City.
14. This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald’s debut novel was published in 1920 and offers a rough draft of the settings and characterizations that would be expertly flushed out in The Great Gatsby. Amory Blaine, typically wealthy and attractive in true Fitzgeraldian fashion, is an Ivy League undergrad who comes to the (equally typical Fitzgeraldian) conclusion that life isn’t as romantic as the best literature makes it seem.
15. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
This 1899 novella is considered a seminal piece of feminist literature. It follows New Orleans society-woman Edna Pontellier as she reconciles her own somewhat radical views on what it means to be a woman with the rigid expectations of femininity in the postbellum Deep South.
Have a LibriVox favorite that we failed to mention above or know of another resource for free audiobooks? Let us know all about it in the comments below.
Jake Flanagin is a writer living in Washington, D.C., where he does story research for The Atlantic magazine and writes about pop culture and social issues. He holds a B.A. in comparative literature from New York University and thinks the bagel situation in D.C. is deplorable. In his free time, he likes to watch reruns of Growing Pains and remains steadfastly ambivalent on the issue of Kirk Cameron.
(Image credits, from top: Pamphlets of Destiny; Austenonly; Penguin Books Australia; DailyLit; Fine Books & Collections; Kraina Ksiazek; the reluctant mom’s blog; Project Gutenberg; Amazon; Amazon; Wikipedia; Project Gutenberg; E-Books Directory; Penguin Books Australia; Autostraddle)
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