Any devoted audiobook listener can attest: Spending nine hours (or more) in the company of a terrible reader — a shrieker, mumbler, droner, tooth-whistler or overzealous thespian — is an experience that can truly ruin a book. A narrator’s voice is not merely a delivery system, an element extraneous to the text, but an integral one: fulfilling, enriching, injuring or sinking a book.
The worst offenders may be found in the classics section. Since these works are out of copyright, narrators can do what they like with the text for the cost of production alone. Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, for instance, exists in a dozen unabridged versions: One, John Lee’s (Tantor) is superb, and a couple, Nathaniel Parker’s (Audible Studios) and Joe Jameson’s (Dreamscape), are excellent if a little fast. A few others are good enough, but there are also some excruciating performers, among them a drawling old fogy; a governess on an elocution bender; a sprinter whose words tear along in a blur; and a man who seems to be recording from inside a tin can.
Perhaps there is something about Hardy that brings out an especially unhandy company. Huckleberry Finn, on the other hand, exists in more than 30 unabridged versions and has attracted admirable readers and only a few bunglers. Among the excellent versions are Stephen L. Vernon’s (A.R.N. Publications), Grover Gardner’s (Blackstone), Alan Munro’s (Trout Bay Media), and Jim D. Johnston’s (Combray Media).
This brings up the matter of taste. There are, it astonishes me to discover, some listeners who don't especially care for the voices of the award-winning British narrator, John Lee, one of my favorites, and Simon Prebble, all of whose upper-class villains do, I admit, sound like Lady Bracknell. My own divergence from general opinion is an aversion to the much-lauded, award-winning, too-swoopy voice of Davina Porter and that of the equally celebrated Scott Brick, the cilantro of narrators — you like it or don't.
Many authors like to read their own books. Sometimes that’s a good thing. But too often authors lack a natural gift for voice narration and aren’t trained in it. Sloppy enunciation, glottal mayhem, off-kilter expressiveness, and a general airlessness have killed some books read by the very person who created them. To be sure, the situation has improved since the rough-hewn days of the 1990s, and certain authors are now truly accomplished narrators, their delivery enhancing the words on the page. Among the finest are Louise Erdrich, John le Carré, Trevor Noah, Neil Gaiman, the late Toni Morrison, and, surprisingly, the late Jim Bouton. Bouton would not have been the right man to read anything but his own Ball Four (Audible Studios), a vastly entertaining exposé of the world of major-league baseball players that he delivers with infectious relish.
Truly great narrators are a rare and wondrous thing: How they manage to distinguish between characters with such limberness, how they can — seamlessly and without apparent effort — change timbre, pitch, manner, and accent from character to character. There are many candidates for the top spot, but here are three whose delivery has contributed another dimension to the silent page: