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The best audiobooks to get started

Rebecca Elliott / 25 February 2021

Looking to try out an audiobook but not sure where to start? We gather together 30 of the very best audiobooks available, including fiction, non-fiction and books for children.

Headphones plugged into book to represent audiobooks
There's no shortage of wonderful audiobooks, whatever genre you're interested in

There has been a boom in audiobook popularity over the last few years, with online streaming services, digital downloads and even digital library loans all helping what used to be a fairly niche format become completely mainstream.

If you're looking to get started with audiobooks, or you've tried some but aren't sure what to go for next, we've gathered together some of the very best audiobooks around in a mixture of genres, including fiction, non-fiction and family-friendly audiobooks.

'Best' is always subjective, especially when so much of your enjoyment of an audiobook will come from how much you enjoy the narrator, so we've compiled this list based on quality of narration, suitability of the format and critical claim. It's always worth listening to a sample before making any purchases to check that the audiobook's narration style.

If you aren't sure what apps or platforms to use read our guide to getting started with audiobooks, including where to listen to them for free. As Audible is the biggest producer of audiobooks in the world it is inevitable that some of these are exclusive to their platform and this will be highlighted where applicable.

The best fiction audiobooks

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, narrated by Jeremy Irons

The Alchemist audiobook clocks in at around 4 hours and is expertly narrated by actor Jeremy Irons. The superb narration and short running time make it a perfect taster audiobook that's usually available on apps like Libby and Scribd. Jeremy Irons has also lent his distinctive voice to Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman and Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, all of which he has been involved with on screen.

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman, read by Lenny Henry

Neil Gaiman usually expertly narrates his own books, but it’s Lenny Henry who brings Anansi Boys to life, slipping in and out of the different characters with ease. This novel follows the adventures of Fat Charlie Nancy, an ordinary London boy who finds out his life isn’t quite so ordinary when he discovers his late father was a god. Fans of Amazon Prime’s American Gods might recognise some of the characters here, and a miniseries is currently in development. Running time just over 10 hours.

Beloved by Toni Morrison, narrated by the author

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved is read by the author herself, Nobel Prize-winning Toni Morrison. Set after the American Civil War, the book tells the harrowing story of a family of escaped slaves still haunted by their experiences. Running time just over 12 hours.

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett, narrated by Tom Hanks

Hollywood megastar Tom Hanks narrates the latest novel from New York Times number one best-selling author of Bel Canto and Commonwealth Ann Patchett. This is a beautifully written novel about the bond between siblings, and Hanks' narration is a pleasure to listen to. Running time just under 10 hours.

The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey, narrated by Finty Williams

Actress Finty Williams, daughter of Dame Judi Dench, lends her voice to a number of excellent audiobooks, and this gripping critically-acclaimed science fiction story set in a dystopian future is a great one to start with. Running time around 13 hours.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, narrated by Julia Whelan and Kirby Heyborne

This gripping best-selling novel about a husband's search for his missing wife is full of glorious twists and turns that will keep you hooked for the whole 20 hour running time. 

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, narrated by Elisabeth Moss

Actress Elisabeth Moss, who stars as Offred in the phenomenally successful TV adaptation, narrates Margaret Atwood's groundbreaking novel that's as meaningful now as it was when first published in 1985. This audiobook won the New York Festival Radio Awards 2020 and has a running time of 11 hours 22 minutes.

James Bond: The Collection, Ian Fleming, narrated by various

The Audible exclusive James Bond: The Collection has a star-studded cast each bringing to life a different Ian Fleming book, including Bill Nighy (Moonraker), David Tennant (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), Hugh Bonneville (Goldfinger), Rosamund Pike (The Spy Who Loved Me) and Kenneth Branagh (The Man With the Golden Gun). It’s a really fabulous collection, with running times varying from about 4 hours to 9 hours.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, dramatised, voiced by Ian Holm, Michael Hordern and Robert Stephens

This classic BBC adaptation from 1981 now has a new audience with the rise of audiobook platforms. The first book in the trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, is 4 hours 35 minutes long, compared to the unabridged version's 19 hours and 53 minutes, making it a fun and easily digestible way of enjoying this epic fantasy series. For those wanting the whole package the unabridged versions read by Rob Inglis are also very good. For more Tolkien you can also enjoy The Children of Hurin and The Fall of Gondolin, both narrated by Christopher Lee.

The Martian by Andy Weird, narrated by R.C. Bray

Modern classic science fiction novel The Martian as narrated by award-winning voice actor and narrator R.C. Bray is widely regarded as one of the best audiobooks available, with the novel about a stranded astronaut recording daily logs being perfectly suited to the audiobook format. A more recent narration by actor Wil Wheaton also exists, but many listeners are loyal to the original.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, narrated by Gary Sinise

Hollywood actor and director Gary Sinise returns to Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, which he directed and starred in alongside John Malkovich in the 1992 film adaptation. Available to buy from iTunes and on CD. This is another short audiobook at just over 3 hours. The actor has also narrated Steinbeck's Travels With Charley, the author's account of his 10,000 mile journey from Maine to California with his trusty dog.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey, narrated by John C. Reilly

Actor John C. Reilly narrates the classic novel from 1962, and a previous recording read by the author himself is also available. Reilly brings all the characters to life with such warmth you'll be hooked, even if you're familiar with the story from the excellent film adaptation.

Pet Sematary by Stephen King, narrated by Michael C. Hall

The Dexter star expertly narrates one of bestselling horror author Stephen King’s most beloved works, a story of loss, desperation and fear, which comes in at just under 16 hours long (quite short for a King novel, then!) Hall also narrates Audible exclusive Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, narrated by Rosamund Pike

Austen’s most popular novel is given the audiobook treatment with actress Rosamund Pike providing beautiful narration that suits the book perfectly. Pike has also narrated Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, narrated by Sissy Spacek

Long regarded as one of the best American novels ever written and ranked number one on a list of ‘books to read before you die’ compiled by librarians, the 1960 coming-of-age drama is brought to life for a new audience with Sissy Spacek’s narration giving voice to Scout Finch as she starts to learn some of the harsh realities of life in 1930s USA. Sissy Spacek also narrated Stephen King’s Carrie, the eponymous character she portrayed in the film, and Coal Miner’s Daughter by Loretta Lynn.

World War Z by Max Brooks, narrated by various (Random House version)

World War Z, a collection of individual accounts of life on Earth following a zombie outbreak, is another book well-suited to the audiobook format. Several versions exist with multiple narrators (one for each account), with the Random House release being the most entertaining. This star-studded recording includes narration by Martin Scorsese, John Turturro, Alfred Molina, Mark Hamill and many, many more, giving the book more of a slick radio production feel than your standard audiobook, but please note this is not the same version that's currently on Audible. Running time 12 hours 5 minutes.

Best non-fiction audiobooks

A Life in Parts by Bryan Cranston, narrated by the author

The Breaking Bad star narrates his own riveting memoir, from his early childhood to the fame of being the star of one of the most critically acclaimed TV series of all time, and his many roles and adventures in between. This memoir proves he's not just an excellent actor, he is also an accomplished writer and storyteller. 8 hours 51 minutes.

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, read by the author

Bill Bryson narrates his own books for Audible, including the excellent a Short History of Nearly Everything, which has a running time of about 19 hours. There’s a lot to take in and a lot to learn. Other Bryson books available as audiobooks include The Body, Notes From a Small Island and At Home: A Short History of Private Life.

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, narrated by the author

Discover the complex ideas of astrophysics in DeGrasse Tyson's easily-digested book, narrated by the author himself, with a short running time of 3 hours 41 minutes. DeGrasse Tyson also narrates his own Letters from an Astrophysicist and My Favourite Universe

Becoming by Michelle Obama, narrated by the author

Michelle Obama’s inspiring memoir won the Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album in 2020 and for good reason. Her heartfelt and intimate account of the events in her life that have shaped her, from a childhood in South Chicago to life in the White House. Running time just over 19 hours.

Calypso by David Sedaris, narrated by the author

Comedian and author David Sedaris narrates all his own books. Calypso is a darkly funny, poignant and warm collection of stories about middle age and getting older. If you enjoy his distinctive sense of humour you can't really go wrong with any of Sedaris' own narrations, including The Best of Me, Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls and When You Are Engulfed in Flames. Running time 6 hours 39 minutes.

How to Be Human by Ruby Wax, narrated by the author

All of Ruby Wax's books are worth a listen on audiobook but How to Be Human is a great place to start. It tackles the really big topics with Wax's distinctive, quirky style and input from a monk and a neuroscientist make this a really enlightening listen. Running time 7 hours and 9 minutes.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, narrated by the author

Hear the author’s account of life as a black woman in segregated 1930s Arkansas in all its raw detail. Her heartbreaking account of poverty, racism and abuse is the first volume of Angelou’s autobiographies, and widely considered to be the best. Running time 10 hours 11 minutes.

The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher, narrated by the author and Billie Lourd

What better way to enjoy the candid early diary of Star Wars star Carrie Fisher than in her own voice, and the voice of her young daughter Billie Lourd? The open and warm narration from the late Fisher offers a wonderful reflection of life as a 19-year-old actress stumbling into one of the biggest franchises of all time, including her affair with co-star Harrison Ford, narrated decades later not long before her tragic death in 2016. In 2017 The Princess Diarist won the Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album and with a running time of just over 5 hours it’s an entertaining way to spend an afternoon.

Best family-friendly audiobooks

Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, narrated by Nick Offerman

The Parks and Recreation star narrates Twain’s classic novel and his gentle, warm delivery is perfect for this story of boyhood mischief and adventure. Offerman’s narration is an Audible exclusive, although other narrations are available as the book is in the public domain. 7 hours 52 minutes.

Chronicles of Ancient Darkness by Michelle Paver, narrated by Ian McKellen

The wonderful Sir Ian McKellen brings the stone age world of Torak, Wolf and Renn to life. The exciting series, which starts with Wolf Brother, is full of wonderfully descriptive detail about stone age life as it follows a young outcast boy and his wolf companion fighting ghosts and demons, so it might not be suitable for children who scare easily. Books are around 6 and a half hours each.

Harry Potter series by JK Rowling, narrated by Stephen Fry

It's no surprise that the boy wizard is the most popular audiobook series on the planet, but with a total running time of 117 hours this is a series only for the committed. Stephen Fry's narration will make the time fly by, and if you've ever got a long journey with grandchildren in tow it's a good one for the car. The US version of the audiobooks are narrated by Jim Dale.

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, narrated by Andy Serkis

Gollum himself Andy Serkis narrates the latest audiobook of Tolkien's classic book and it's a whole lot of fun to hear him throw everything into it. Running time 10 hours 24 minutes.

Matilda by Roald Dahl, narrated by Kate Winslet

Kate Winslet takes a break from being a Hollywood megastar to narrate Roald Dahl's wonderfully funny Matilda. Other stars to narrate Dahl's work include Derek Jacobi (George's Marvellous Medicine), Richard Ayoade (The Twits), Miranda Richardson (The Witches) and Hugh Laurie (The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me).

The Midnight Gang by David Walliams, narrated by the author and others

Bestselling children's author and comedian David Walliams is sure to please younger members of the family and those young-at-heart. Walliams narrates his own story, with special guests Peter Serafinowicz, Morwenna Banks, Nitin Gatatra and Ellen Thomas stepping in to play certain characters. The format works well and is used for many of his books, including Code Name Bananas and The World's Worst Children. Walliams also narrates Roald Dahl's The BFG.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Louis Stevenson (dramatised), voiced by various

Philip Glenister, Daniel Mays, Catherine Tate and Owen Teale star in this excellent dramatised adaptation of the classic tale of pirates and treasure maps. The production is livened up with sound effects that’s sure to keep children and big kids alike captivated. Audible exclusive, running time 6 hours 23 minutes.

Visit our Books section for short stories from bestselling authors, or find out where to get free Kindle eBooks.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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