Some audiobooks you listen to when you don’t have time to sit down and read the physical book. And others you listen to even if you’ve read their corresponding hardcovers again and again, the voices revivifying timeworn texts.
Written by women from the mid-19th century to the late 20th, and recorded by women in the 21st, these eight titles are all canonical works of both fiction and nonfiction that have been transformed by distinguished contemporary female narrators into vocal performances that might even become classics themselves.
There’s nowhere to begin but here. This list’s most recently published book is also the only one read by its author, a celebrity in her own right. Toni Morrison, who died in August, lives on through her writing, nowhere more so than in her most famous novel, BELOVED (Random House Audio; 12 hours, 3 minutes). In her low, slow, alluringly gravelly intonation, Morrison expresses the grief and fury of freed slaves and their offspring so intimately you feel as if she’s speaking to you and only you. “Whites might dirty her all right, but not her best thing,” Sethe says, in Morrison’s calm, powerful voice. “Her beautiful, magical best thing — the part of her that was clean.” And then, moments later, a quick inhalation before she wipes you out with, “And no one, nobody on this earth, would list her daughter’s characteristics on the animal side of the paper. No. Oh no.”
If Virginia Woolf herself can’t narrate her 1927 novel TO THE LIGHTHOUSE (Audible Studios; 6 hours, 37 minutes), then Nicole Kidman — who won an Oscar for her role as Woolf in “The Hours” — is the next best thing. With her cut-glass Australian enunciation, Kidman skips nimbly between the minds of each character at the Ramsays’ Scottish summer cottage, slowing and softening to convey the sobriety of Mrs. Ramsay’s maternal guilt (“she was certain that he was thinking, we are not going to the Lighthouse tomorrow; and she thought, he will remember that all his life”), and tightening her voice to reiterate time and again one houseguest’s sneer that women “can’t paint, can’t write.”
One time I listened to Maggie Gyllenhaal read “Anna Karenina” for 35 hours! I say this to make the actor Thandie Newton’s 19-hour recording of JANE EYRE (Audible Studios; 19 hours, 10 minutes), by Charlotte Brontë, sound more manageable. “Reader,” extended beat. “I married him,” Newton says, as swiftly as a sigh, perfectly capturing the inevitability of the conclusion. Her taut British diction makes a one-woman play out of the orphan girl’s love story, which starts out with all the young-adult tropes — the poor, good-hearted child abused by the spoiled, wealthy boy and his classist keepers, each distinguished by his or her own idiosyncratic cadence — but progresses into what many consider the prototypical Victorian novel. Written in 1847, not long before the start of the American Civil War, the novel makes repeated comparisons between Jane’s captivity, as an impoverished girl in a rich family’s home, and slavery. Newton’s exasperated and aptly melodramatic delivery of Jane’s accusation that her cruel stepbrother is “like a slave-driver” is a knowing contemporary wink at this timeless yet dated classic.
Margaret Atwood’s THE HANDMAID’S TALE (Audible Studios; 12 hours, 6 minutes) — about a near-future in which a radical coup replaces America’s democracy and Constitution with a militaristic state called Gilead, with women stripped of all rights and reduced to their reproductive value — resonates as much today as it did when it was first published in 1985. The actor Claire Danes voices the narrator, Offred (the book’s second section, given over to the perspectives of other handmaids, is read by a full cast), with an appropriately theatrical gravitas, her voice so dramatic at points that it trembles. She has called the book “so poetic I think the words are really served by being spoken out loud.”
Where Atwood used science fiction as a vehicle for her political message, two decades earlier Betty Friedan had gone directly for the manifesto. In 1963, THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE (Audible Studios; 15 hours, 41 minutes) ignited the second wave of the feminist movement. As a fan of Parker Posey in mockumentaries like “Best in Show” and “Waiting for Guffman,” I expected her narration to channel the energy of her comic performances into an equally energetic call to action for women’s rights. Instead, although the weight of her tone matches the occasion, her voice sounds robotic. And not just when enumerating lists or getting into the weeds of the 1960s household socioeconomics, even in passages that could’ve had the climactic effect of oration, such as: “Each suburban wife struggles with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries … chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night — she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — ‘Is this all?’” If that’s not a missed opportunity, I don’t know what is.
If “The Feminine Mystique” heralded the second wave of literary feminism, Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel, THE AWAKENING (Audible Studios; 5 hours, 38 minutes), was a landmark of the first. Edna Pontellier is a rich New Orleans housewife who at first bristles against but then comes to reject the traditional gender norms of the fin de siècle South. “The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.” Kim Basinger reads the closing lines of the novel — oft-quoted in gender studies classes — in a voice that’s as smooth as the waves buffeting Edna’s body and as resolved as her conviction that though her husband and children “were a part of her life … they need not have thought that they could possess her, body and soul.”
There is nothing conventional about the woman who wrote SLOUCHING TOWARDS BETHLEHEM (Audible Studios; 6 hours, 52 minutes), a collection of essays about living in California. Joan Didion is perhaps one of the greatest living masters of the form, and Diane Keaton’s sultry lilt captures the nuances of her prose, becoming firm when it needs to be, or inquisitive, or even “despondent,” as Didion claims to have been upon publishing the title essay about the Haight-Ashbury counterculture. When Keaton reads Didion’s admission in “On Keeping a Notebook” that “I tell what some would call lies,” her voice becomes softer, a little higher, more somnolent than it is when she reads the less personal pieces of journalism. This book, Didion’s first work of nonfiction, was published in 1968, when she was in her 30s; and Keaton’s portrait of her is utterly convincing.
Atticus Finch is a timeless American hero who has been played by the likes of Gregory Peck in film and Jeff Daniels on the stage. But in Sissy Spacek’s narration of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (Audible Studios; 12 hours, 17 minutes), it’s Harper Lee’s narrator, Scout, who becomes the listener’s moral guiding light and closest confidante. You forget you’re listening to the voice of an adult, so wholly do Spacek’s Southern rhythms embody the young tomboy as she witnesses the racial injustices of the Depression-era South unfold before her.