If you're feeling overwhelmed by the holiday rush — too swamped, even, to spend an afternoon reading those books you got for Christmas, we have some recommendations for you — but these are audiobooks, so you can listen while you multitask.
Robin Whitten is the editor and founder of AudioFile magazine. Her list of the year's best audiobooks begins with a selection that might while away the hours on a long family road trip. "Toothiana is one of William Joyce's books that's in the Guardians of Childhood series," she tells NPR's David Greene. "He has the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny and St. Nicholas, who all become superheroes through these various books."
"It is so inventive and imaginative, and it's great for storytelling," she adds. And that storytelling quality is part of what makes a good audiobook. "Oftentimes, episodic stories and mysteries ... in fiction, it's easier to see how audiobooks and the audio medium work."
There is a nonfiction selection on Whitten's list: Jon Meacham's Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, which chronicles the third president's life in an immersive style reminiscent of good fiction. Whitten adds that the book also benefits from the voice of a good reader. "You can be that involved [with the book] as you see the words on the page, but in audio, the narrator helps place you there."
Some audiobooks have celebrity narrators — for example, Colin Firth can be heard reading The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. "For a lot of people who've never really considered or been interested in an audiobook, they think, 'Oh, I love Colin Firth, I love his voice' ... and so they may try something," Whitten says. "And they also may not really know who Graham Greene is ... but they're attracted to it, so they're going to give it a try." Firth's voice is beautiful, she adds, "and he has a really special way of being inside the story, which is actually a personal, I think, a personal favorite of his ... it's in your head, as if he's telling just you."
More of Robin Whitten's Audiobook Picks
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
Read by Holter Graham
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
Read by Edoardo Ballerini
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Read by Simon Vance
Biography and History
Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin
Read by Alex Jennings
Cronkite by Douglas Brinkley
Read by George Guidall
Nonfiction and Culture
Abundance by Steve Kotler and Peter Diamandis
Read by Arthur Morey
Arguably by Christopher Hitchens
Read by Simon Prebble
Mystery and Suspense
An American Spy by Olen Steinhauer
Read by David Pittu
The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny
Read by Ralph Cosham
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
As we approach the end of the year, we've been asking people for their best of 2012 lists. Let's turn to some books you may have missed. You should think about giving them a listen.
We're talking about audiobooks. Robin Whitten reviews them. She's editor and founder of AudioFile magazine, and she brought in some favorites.
Robin Whitten, welcome to the program.
ROBIN WHITTEN: Thank you, David. Glad to be here.
GREENE: Well, let's get right to one of the books on your list and it's called "Toothiana" by William Joyce. Is that right?
WHITTEN: Yes, it is. What a great name.
GREENE: Yeah, I like it. Let's give a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "TOOTHIANA")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Reading) Patter and Fog, feeling wild and industrious, catapulted themselves to the hollow of a tall tree where they had erected a hideout devoted to solving ancient mysteries. Such as: why was there such a thing as bedtime and what could they do to eliminate it forever.
GREENE: It's a - sounds like this might be a good book for listening on a family road trip. What's the story here?
WHITTEN: Oh, this is fantastic. Well, "Toothiana" is one of William Joyce's books that's in "The Guardians of Childhood" series. And he has the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and St. Nicholas who all become superheroes through these various books.
WHITTEN: And they are the guardians of childhood and of dreams, in particular - good dreams.
GREENE: What qualities really make it clear that a book is just perfect for audio?
WHITTEN: Well, oftentimes, episodic stories and mysteries. You know, mostly, you know, in fiction it's easier to see how audio books and the audio medium work.
GREENE: And, Robin, when you do have a sample of nonfiction on your list. It's a book called "The Art of Power." It's about Thomas Jefferson. Let's give a listen to that.
(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "THOMAS JEFFERSON: THE ART OF POWER")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Reading) At age 10, Thomas was sent into the woods alone with a gun. The assignment, the expectation, was that he was to come home with evidence that he could survive on his own in the wild.
(Reading) The test did not begin well. He killed nothing, had nothing to show for himself. The woods were forbidding. Everything around the boy - the trees and the thickets and the rocks and the river - was frightening and frustrating. He refused to give up or give in. He soldiered on until his luck finally changed.
(Reading) Finding a wild turkey caught in a pen, the family story went, he tied it with his garter to a tree, shot it, and carried it home in triumph.
GREENE: You know, it really is - it's nonfiction, but it's almost told in a kind of fiction-style way. You kind of get into the scene and feel, you know, you're imagining yourself there.
WHITTEN: Right, and I think that the author, you know, wanted us to do that. And so, you know, some readers do that naturally. And you can be that involved as you see the words on the page. But in audio, you know, the narrator helps place you there in the woods.
GREENE: You know, one question I have, some of these audio books they bring in celebrities to do the reading. Like Colin Firth is reading "The End of the Affair," a book by Graham Greene. How do you think - I mean, a good idea to have a famous voice?
WHITTEN: Well, I think that what is quite exciting about that is for a lot of people who've never really considered or been interested in an audio book, they think, oh, I love Colin Firth. I love his voice.
GREENE: From the screen, yeah.
WHITTEN: From the screen, and so they may try something. And they also may not really know who Graham Greene is or ever, you know, encountered this book, but they're attracted to it so they're going to give it a try. And, you know, Colin Firth's voice is beautiful and he has a really special way of, you know, being inside the story, which is actually a personal favorite of his.
(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "THE END OF THE AFFAIR")
COLIN FIRTH: (Reading) I said Henry, Holmes is a stranger. And so his eyes light up as though we were old friends. Bendrix, he said with affection, and yet the world would have said he had the reasons for hate. Not me.
WHITTEN: And he brings across some of the interesting intimacy that the audio book medium is really known for. Because the book is so intimate and, you know, it's really - it's in your head, as if he's telling just you.
GREENE: Well, Robin Whitten, thank you so much for joining us to talk about this.
WHITTEN: Thank you, David. It was great.
GREENE: Robin Whitten, of AudioFile magazine, with some recommendations for books to listen to. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.