Some people use white noise machines. Some use earplugs. I, on the other hand, cannot fall asleep without an audiobook. Albeit more benign than an Ambien addiction, it’s pretty terrible. Without the voice of a BAFTA-winning British stage actor murmuring softly from my Macbook speakers, I’m a sleepless wreck. So I’ve probably listened to as many audiobooks as I’ve read printed books (and I’ve convinced myself that there’s some kind of hypnopedia going on); as a result, I’m as knowledgeable of audiobook narrators as Jean Cocteau was of opium strains. Here are, in my opinion, the best of the best.
Name: Jim Dale
Portfolio: The Harry Potter septet, The Night Circus, A Christmas Carol, Around the World in 80 Days, Peter Pan
Dale is the undisputed King of All Audiobookdom. Or maybe “wizard” is more appropriate? He created an astounding 134 different voices for the Harry Potter books — a performance that spans all seven volumes and earned him more accolades than any other audiobook narrator in history. Dexterous as he is in reading Rowling’s analects, he’s equally spellbinding in his renditions of English classics (Dickens, Verne, Barrie) — although he only created a puny 42 voices for his 2003 reading of A Christmas Carol.
Name: Maya Angelou
Portfolio: Letter to My Daughter, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, A Song Flung Up to Heaven
If the UN were to install a global PA system over which Maya Angelou delivered hourly words of encouragement, I’m pretty sure we could eradicate human suffering by 2015. Whether she’s reciting poetry or one of her six memoirs, Angelou’s earthy baritone is equal parts entrancing, comforting, and fortifying.
Name: BBC Radio 4 (Various artists)
Portfolio: The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Les Misérables, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Before Peter Jackson took the Hobbits to New Zealand, before Anne Hathaway’s forlorn close-up, and while Robert Downey Jr. was shuttling between jail and rehab, there was BBC Radio 4. These literary dramatizations of classic (and often epic) works of literature have a distinct advantage: a full cast. But these casts are plucked from the British stage and screen, and voices like Ian Holm, William Nighy, and John Le Mesurier are as excellent as stand alones as they are in concert.
Name: Garrison Keillor
Portfolio: A Christmas Blizzard, My Little Town: Stories from Lake Wobegon, Homegrown Democrat
“America’s favorite storyteller” is a lofty title, but Keillor bears it well. His weekly radio variety show, A Prairie Home Companion, is rooted in Keillor’s narrative presence — something he definitely brings to recordings of his short story collections and popular memoir. His signature bass is, in itself, an American treasure.
Name: Jeremy Irons
Portfolio: Lolita, The Alchemist, Brideshead Revisited, James and the Giant Peach
Irons’ voice is, in many ways, the standard by which all other voices are judged. His documentarian delivery of the King’s English is precise, but not without dramatic flair. It transcends genre, appropriate for both the most whimsical of Dahl and bleakest of Waugh.
Name: Toni Morrison
Portfolio: Beloved, Home, Paradise
As a writer, Morrison has a gift for making each page more enthralling than the last, and it certainly translates audiographically. Her honey-soaked rasp is simultaneously personable and majestic. Her articulation is deliberate, dispatching her own artfully crafted prose with hypnotic purpose.
Name: David Suchet and Hugh Fraser
Portfolio: Death on the Nile, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Murder on the Orient Express
David Suchet and Hugh Fraser constitute a murder mystery dream team — Suchet as the convivial Hercule Poirot and Fraser as his stalwart confidant, Inspector Hastings. Suchet, who also plays the title character in Agatha Christie’s Poirot (BBC), masters the Walloon lilt of the diminutive Belgian detective, while Fraser’s quintessential Home Counties vernacular poses a harmonious contrast.
Name: Alan Cumming
Portfolio: About a Boy, Macbeth, Leviathan
Alan Cumming’s Scottish brogue is nonpareil (when we’re not counting Sean Connery); as you'd expect, it's perfectly matched to “the Scottish Play.” In fact, his one-man audio performance of Macbeth is so iconic that many Shakespeare aficionados have come to designate it “Cumming’s Play.”
Name: Penny Marshall
Portfolio: My Mother Was Nuts
Miss Marshall only has one audiobook to her name: a recording of her 2012 autobiography My Mother Was Nuts. But narrated in her trademark Bronx accent, Nuts elbows its way past more highbrow productions. Dropped R’s and diphthongs never sounded so good.