Having a story read to us has calmed humans down for centuries. It’s why we were read to in bed as toddlers, and it’s the reason the Von Trapp children all rush into Maria’s room as soon as the thunderstorm hits in The Sound of Music. Seeing as we’re living through a particularly stressful time right now, we thought we’d take the opportunity to ask some of our favorite authors about the audiobooks they like to have read to them when they’re feeling particularly frazzled, frenetic, or frustrated.
In speaking to these authors, many also noted the other inherent benefit of having a book read to you: That you are more likely to actually finish it, because you can listen while doing other things, like the dishes, walking, driving, or simply sitting on the couch. Our 17 authors’ 18 favorite audiobooks span genres, too, so there’s something for everyone — they also feature narrators as compelling as the material itself, from A-list celebrities like Diane Keaton and Armie Hammer to the books’ authors themselves. Before we get to the individual picks, we should note that all of the recommended audiobooks below are available on Audible, and for $15 a month, you can get all of them for free via a monthly Audible subscription. Otherwise, you can pay for each individually, but know that most titles cost more on their own than the price of a monthly subscription.
Editor’s note: All but two of these authors have either recently published new books or are about to publish new books. But due to the restrictions on gatherings and crowd sizes amid the coronavirus pandemic, they have been forced to postpone tours and events to promote them. So in addition to each author’s recommendation, we’ve noted their most recent titles as well.
“There is something intoxicating and soothing about the experience of listening to Sally Rooney’s debut. As I try to sort out why, I imagine it’s because there’s a conversations-with-friends quality to the writing, which lends itself perfectly to a listening experience. It was as if I was simply over hearing — and then becoming part of — a particularly juicy conversation. I find myself remembering the sensual nature of the prose and the remarkably mellifluous voice of Irish actress Aoife McMahon. I close my eyes and imagine the story and it merges with my listening experience.” —Joanna Hershon, author of St. Ivo
“The conversational tone of Sally Rooney’s coming-of-age novel is truly at home in an audio setting, mainly due to the skilled narration by Irish actress Aoife McMahon. Conversations With Friends is a story about the way our emotional impulses are in constant conflict with social restraint, and Aoife’s voice lends instant charm and authenticity to the inner world of 21-year-old college student Frances.” —Lang Leav, author of Poemsia
“I lost myself in the narration of Middlemarch, a book I could not get through in high school or college, but that drew me in completely because of the fabulous narrator, Juliet Stevenson. The story itself is so good, but it’s harder to get into when it’s flat on the page. Stevenson is British: Her voice is really appropriate for the world George Eliot creates, and the period in which the book was written (the 1870s). I became completely involved with all the characters; fell in love with some, hated others. Stevenson’s narration makes the book incredibly compelling: I liked it so much, that when the narration was over, I actually bought the print book just to have the words nearby.” —Eilene Zimmerman, author of Smacked
“There is no better companion for long socially distanced walks than all 35 hours of Eliot’s greatest novel, which is the most engrossing, gossip-filled soap opera imaginable. Juliet Stevenson’s narration is a miraculous performance, with the each of the innumerable characters fully imagined and distinct. It is pure, glorious pleasure.” —Garth Greenwell, author of Cleanness
“I talk all the time to anyone who will listen about Diane Keaton reading Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. It’s just the most soothing experience, in part because Didion’s whole style already is to describe things that seem chaotic in a way that isn’t all that chaotic. There’s a music to how Didion writes and a rhythm that is clearly hers, which makes the audio versions of her work even better. And Keaton, who’s obviously a professional, reads in the same observant yet disaffected way that Didion can famously make things seem not real. It almost seems like she’s playing Didion as a character. I never thought someone could make lines like, ‘People were missing, children were missing, parents were missing’ sound so soothing, but she does. I’ve listened to that opening paragraph almost a thousand times. I once missed my subway stop listening to it.” —Conor Dougherty, author of Golden Gates
“Another audiobook I’ve listened to during the pandemic is Patrick Radden-Keefe’s award-winning story of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Because it’s an Irish narrator, it really feels perfect. I wrote something on Twitter about how much I loved it, and a bunch of people came out to tell me they felt exactly the same way, including Radden-Keefe himself.” —Dougherty
“I’ve been listening to this at night when my insomnia is terrible. I think the biggest theme of this book is how absurd and ridiculous human bodies are, and yet, still, we desire them. We want to be — even in weird and gross moments — desirable. Irby takes something so deep and makes it fun. There’s something that can be impossibly lonely about being wide awake at 4 am, especially now. But Irby’s reading style is a mixture of an ‘Oh, shit this is actually fun’ one-woman show and your most interesting friend who can make even the most mundane incident into a hilarious adventure. I’m trying to listen to one essay a night. And even if I don’t fall asleep after, listening to this book puts me in a much better mood.” —Megan Giddings, author of Lakewood
“My favorite genre of anything is what I call ‘people enjoying their summer in Europe,’ and this is one of its best examples. There’s a horny teen, swimming in the Mediterranean, naps, and clandestine love. The movie is wonderful and James Ivory deserved the Oscar he won for the adaptation, but the book has a completely different ending, including time jumps. And the audiobook has Armie Hammer and his deep, patrician voice doing Italian accents and describing masturbation with a peach. Let him describe the perfect summer none of us will get this year.” —Marisa Meltzer, author of This Is Big
“A friendship over 40 years is special thing, and few evoke its qualities more enticingly than Eric Lerner, who shared such a friendship with Leonard Cohen. In his story of their time together there is humor and sadness, discovery, detail, happiness, laughter, desire, and fear of loss and other possibilities. I had to ration the loveliness: No more than 30 minutes of listening at first, then 20, then 10. The gentle narration by the late and much missed William Dufris is an escape. I was there, at times, at the table with Esther, Leonard’s beloved, complicated sister, she of no appetite yet unable to refrain from invading her brother’s plate, and then his friends. Maybe it was lockdown that made this my favorite audiobook ever. But no, I think not.” —Philippe Sands, author of The Ratline
“When it comes to calming audiobooks, I’d vote for Nina Stibbe reading her memoir, Love, Nina. It’s the funny, charming, weird true story of Stibbe’s time being a nanny for a family in London, and since it’s told through tiny letters to her sister, it’s easy to pick it up, put it down, then pick it up again.” —Ann Patchett, author of The Dutch House
“I also love Nicole Kidman reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. If Woolf’s classic about whether or not the family will take the boat to the lighthouse seems challenging, it makes absolute sense when Kidman reads it to you. The story just washes over you like a fever dream. Whenever I finish it, I start back at the beginning again. I should also mention that Tom Hanks reading my own book, The Dutch House, is sublime — not because of the book but because of the reader.” —Patchett
“I swear I can hear a smile on the late David Rakoff’s face as he reads from his essay collection, Half Empty. His stories are hilarious. His stories are gut-wrenchingly sad. His details — like ‘the late-20th-century-secular-humanist-Jewish-psychiatrist’ home décor of his youth, or his admission that ‘lying flat against the tile of the kitchen floor, listening to someone else have sex, is essentially my early 20s in a nutshell’ — make me want to write my own details. As he reads the words he anguished to produce aloud, you can hear satisfaction in his voice. He has suffered for these words. Listening to him rail against the musical Rent and the romanticization of entitled starving artists living in garrets as they whine and refuse to pay the bills is one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard. A triumph.” — Phyllis Grant, author of Everything Is Under Control
“I’m still mourning the end of David Shaw-Parker’s wondrous new audio recordings of Anthony Trollope’s two great literary series, the Barchester series and the Palliser series — which are themselves connected. [Editor’s note: The Warden is the first installment in the Barchester series; Can You Forgive Her is the first installment in the Palliser series.] These novels contain all the elements that make serialized storytelling so deliciously addictive: Recurring characters; multiple subplots; sprawling narratives; the delight of interweaving lives. Animating such a roiling cast of characters is a monumental task, and David Shaw-Parker more than masters it. He individuates voices and accents so consistently that I often recognized reappearing characters before they were even identified. Trollope’s great subject was power, and he explored it from myriad angles in a 19th Century England that feels close enough to 21st Century America to be relevant, but at a calming historical distance. Greed, vanity, fame, publicity, wealth, pedigree, duplicity and of course, politics (among rural English clergy in the Barchester Series, and in London Parliament in the Palliser series) are all laid open for dramatic inquiry.” —Jennifer Egan, author of Manhattan Beach
“Throughout this pandemic, I have been hand-selling this audiobook like my own personal hoard of quilted Northern pastel toilet paper. It’s pure escapism. I judge an audiobook by how much housework it makes me want to do — to keep listening to this one, I ironed a fitted sheet. This book’s got everything: humor, horror, heart, and a book club that thinks The Bridges of Madison County is about a serial killer. It’s Steel Magnolias meets Dracula. But it’s the actress who reads the book who makes it: Bahni Turpin’s voice is soothing and funny and winsome and strong.” —Helen Ellis, author of Southern Lady Code
“Just before we were told to be safer at home, I began listening to Margaret Atwood’s Booker Prize–winning The Testaments. You would think that traveling back to Gilead in this particular climate would be the farthest thing from calming, but the book has comforted me. Maybe it’s because I’m an optimist at heart and cling to the hope that everything will be all right at some point, here and in Gilead. Or perhaps it is the powerful narration, especially by Ann Dowd, who also portrays Aunt Lydia on the television show. Hearing the voices of Atwood’s women, instead of simply seeing them on the page, is like being told to buck up and buckle down — a stern but reassuring reprimand to stay strong and stay the course.” —Ivy Pochoda, author of These Women
“Jenny Agutter is the British actor most familiar for her work as the narrator of the TV series Call the Midwife. I Capture the Castle is the ‘diary’ of Cassandra Mortmain, a teenager who lives with her eccentric family in a tumbledown rented castle. Cassandra has to contend with a tormented artistic genius father, a dense-but-hot farmhand who’s in unrequited love with her, an artistic stepmother who likes to commune with nature nude on the moors, a bratty but lovable sister, and a pair of rich American brothers who are the castle’s new landlords. Hijinks ensue. It’s a detailed and complex story that rewards multiple listens, with lots of long descriptions of interiors, meals, shopping trips, walks in bluebell woods, et cetera. It’s also funny in a gentle witty way, not a distracting LOL way.” — Emily Gould, author of Perfect Tunes
“I’ve been listening to On Being Human, usually before going to bed or in the early mornings when I’m not quite ready to get up. It’s about a woman who battles grief over her father’s death, and how that leads to anorexia and depression all while she’s progressively going deaf. Yet, in that process, she learns how to listen to others as she goes on to lead workshops all over the world where people learn how to listen to themselves. As I listen to the memoir, which is narrated by its author, I can’t help but wonder what it’s like for someone to not hear herself as she’s reading, yet persevere in telling her story anyway.” —Meredith Talusan, author of Fairest
“Mary Karr’s modern classic memoir The Liars’ Club isn’t exactly soothing in its subject matter — alcoholism, abuse, guns, insanity of every sort. But it is immersive, addictive, and very, very funny, which makes you forget about just about everything else that’s going on. All of Karr’s memoirs have this quality, to be fair, but they’re even better as audiobooks, because Karr narrates them herself, with her incredible salty Texan drawl and poet’s sense for timing. Trust me: You want to hear her tell this story in her own voice.” — Emily Temple, author of The Lightness
“You wouldn’t think that a book about children spontaneously (and frequently) bursting into flame would be calming, but it is. I listened to this before I read it, and there was something about the voices — both narrator Marin Ireland’s and writer Kevin Wilson’s — that soothed me. Maybe it’s the chill attitude of the story, or maybe it’s the fact that you, yourself, the reader, do not burst into flames, and what a relief that is. Either way, it’s an incredible book, and your ears will be happy.” —Emma Straub, author of All Adults Here