When the world is too much for us, which is an awful lot of the time and especially when we’re stuck in traffic, audiobooks are a great diversion. It surprises me how few people have discovered this. Audiobooks are just as escapist as movies or TV, except that you still have the use of your eyes, which is important if you’re driving. So as long as you pick a really good book and, equally important, a really good reader, an audiobook can mean the difference between an hour of intense irritation and one of pleasure.
But what to listen to? Thrillers and detective novels are obvious examples, plot-heavy and fast-paced, though the language is sometimes disappointing. There are some masterpieces of the genre, however, including a series of wonderful Agatha Christie novels read by both read by both David Suchet, who plays Hercule Poirot in the ITV television series, and Hugh Fraser, who plays the French detective’s sidekick, Captain Hastings.
Another thing I recommend is classics — this is also a great way to catch up on books you never read. Victorian novels are always good, especially if you have a long commute: Austen, Dickens, and Eliot are all highly absorbing once you get yourself accustomed to the stately pace of 19th-century prose.
As an added bonus, these canonical works are often read by classically trained British actors with impeccable diction and an amazing vocal range. Derek Jacobi, Martin Jarvis, and David Case are all marvelous readers with large repertoires; Michael Kitchen, who plays Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle in “Foyle’s War,’’ has a lovely reading voice. One of my favorite productions is Rudyard Kipling’s “Kim’’ read by Sam Dastor, who does all the voices in that opulently populated tale.
Of course, not every book lends itself to the audiobook format, but there is an interesting subset of things that were actually meant to be read aloud. The Bible falls into this category, as does “Beowulf,’’ which Seamus Heaney both translated and read in a superb audiobook edition. But the paramount example of works composed not for the eye but for the ear are Homer’s two great epics, “The Iliad’’ and “The Odyssey.’’
There was a time when anyone who was educated had read Homer, but today he is often thought difficult and obscure. There are legitimate reasons for this: The stories are nearly 3,000 years old; most of the peoples and places they refer to no longer exist; the poems are long, at 12,000 and 15,000 lines, and full of elliptical references to unfamiliar figures and events; even the structure is peculiar. The “Odyssey’s’’ narrative, for example, wanders all over the map — not unlike its hero — going backwards and forwards in space and time.
On the plus side, however, Homer is a superlative storyteller, plain and direct, with forceful imagery and little or no exposition to slow the story down. It may be epic poetry, but the emphasis is on epic; as Alexander Pope pointed out more than 200 years ago, when it comes to Homer, it’s action, action, action all the way. Of course, to appreciate this you have to understand what’s going on, and for that I recommend a little background listening: Elizabeth Vandiver’s lectures in the Great Courses audiobook series are an excellent place to start.
So, let’s say you decide to take the plunge and spend some driving time with Homer. You might begin with the new Macmillan Audio edition of Robert Fitzgerald’s rendition of these classic texts. Fitzgerald, who first translated “The Odyssey’’ in 1961, wrote as mellifluous an English as one could wish for: “Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story/ of that man skilled in all ways of contending,/ the wanderer, harried for years on end,/ after he plundered the stronghold/ on the proud height of Troy.’’
Fitzgerald’s smooth, musical verse is perfectly matched in this performance by the light, honeyed tones of Dan Stevens, the British actor who played Matthew Crawley in the first three seasons of “Downton Abbey.’’ Stevens has beautiful, clear articulation, and wonderful pacing, and he really seems to enjoy the poetry of the words. I confess that I could listen to him all day, which is good because the running time for this unabridged edition of “The Odyssey’’ is 10 1/2 hours, with another 14 hours for “The Iliad,’’ which he also reads.
I should add, for those nerdy few who want to take up the challenge, that the Stevens/Fitzgerald reading is a very different experience from the other popular audio edition of these works, which has the deep-voiced and dramatic Ian McKellen (aka Gandalf) reading Robert Fagles’s more muscular translation of “The Odyssey’’ and, in another exquisite pairing, Jacobi reading Fagles’s “Iliad.’’ My recommendation, naturally, is to listen to them all.
For your commuting pleasure: a quick audiobook guide
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the publishers for “Great Expectations’’ and “The End of the Affair.’’