Academic Audiobooks: Or, a Thinly-Veiled Plea for Recommendations

IMG_5335Over the past few years, I’ve become (to my great surprise) an avid listener of audiobooks. What initially began as a means to keep me awake and alert during a series of near-monthly drives back and forth from Virginia to northern New Jersey has become, over time, what I prefer to listen to in almost all circumstances: on my morning run, on my daily commute, during the several short walks I take across campus throughout the week, and even occasionally at day’s end, as I lay in bed trying to unwind before falling asleep (with my headphones in, this is a far less intrusive means of me “reading” for my slumbering wife). 

While I enjoy listening to the occasional newly-released and best-selling novel, I’ve noticed that my audiobooks of choice lately have veered toward three categories: historical fiction (defined broadly here to include both recent novels that take place in a historical setting and older, often classic works of literature important to understanding a particular moment or era of history); historical non-fiction covering periods, places, and peoples beyond my immediate academic interests; and historical non-fiction within my specific areas of scholarly focus I worry I won’t have time to sit down and read in a traditional manner.

Audiobooks, then, have become a means of helping me keep up with scholarship outside of early America (including periods and subjects I will likely need to teach at some future point), introducing myself to historical subjects in which I am peripherally interested (including the history of sport, the history of food), and of listening to popular and academic histories that fit under the broad umbrella of “early American history” that I might not find time to read in the immediate future.

While part of the reason that my audiobooks of choice all veer toward history of some sort is surely attributable to my general nerdiness, it is also a result of a greatly expanded audiobook offerings over the last few years. While popular histories by the likes of David McCullough have long been available to listeners, the volume of more academic books published by university and trade presses alike has increased greatly in the very recent past, thanks to large companies (owned by Amazon) and more narrowly-focused University Press Audiobooks alike.

Not all historical monographs or syntheses work well as audiobooks, of course. It can be frustrating to listen to a book and not be able to stop, flip to the endnotes and check the reference for a quoted or mentioned source (the Audible app does helpfully allow you to virtually bookmark and add a note at any point while listening), and dense, lengthy tomes are often as difficult to slog through while listening as while reading (especially when the reader is as dry and boring as the text).  The importance of non-jargony writing and compelling narrative, then, is perhaps even greater for listeners than for readers and, in my experience, biography and narrative history work particularly well for audiobooks. Recent favorites in the field of early American history include Marie Arana’s biography of Simon Bolivar, Andrea Stuart’s family history Sugar in the Blood, and (so far) Rachel Hope Cleves’s Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America. Beyond early American history, I’d recommend to anyone interested the audio versions of Jennifer Burns’s Goddess of the Market Ayn Rand and the American Right, Jeffrey Picher’s Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food, and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. And recommendations in the historical fiction genre include James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird and Lawrence Hill’s Someone Knows my Name (both of which are lively read by talented narrators).

How about you, readers? Do you listen to historical audiobooks, academic or otherwise? What are some of your favorites?

13 responses

  1. I’m a huge fan of history audiobooks, glad to share some recommendations and hope to see some more from other readers. Below are 10 from my audible library that I especially enjoyed:

    1. The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia, by Andrei Lankov
    2. Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa, by Martin Meredith
    3. India: A Portrait, by: Patrick French
    4. In the Shadow of the General: Modern France and the Myth of De Gaulle, Sudhir Hazareesingh
    5. Jews and the Military: A History, by Derek J. Penslar
    6. The General: Charles De Gaulle and the France He Saved, by Jonathan Fenby
    Indomitable Will: LBJ in the Presidency, by Mark Updegrove
    7. Embracing Defeat, by John W. Dower
    8. American Judaism: A History, by Jonathan D. Sarna
    9. Yiddish Civilisation: The Rise and Fall of a Forgotten Nation, by Paul Kriwaczek
    10. The Coming of the Third Reich, by Richard J. Evans (plus two more in the series)

    • Excellent. Thanks for the suggestions, Simon! Are these books within your own immediate interests? Or just generally interesting and provocative books?

      • Some of them are about things I’ve long been interested in – French and Jewish history, for example, but a lot are things I picked up out of curiosity.

        I prefer audiobooks to print for non-fiction, which is limiting but also forces me to broaden my interests. There just aren’t enough audiobooks about my pet topics to occupy my two hours on the train every day! I would never have taken a print history of Japan after WWII or a book about the Boer War out of the library, but I’m really glad I read them.

  2. Now that Kindle has embedded into its app, its easier to use. Many books on Kindle can add the audio file for just a few $$$s. I listened to Robert Middlekauf’s The Glorious Cause last year. I think all of the Oxford Histories of the US are available on Kindle/Audible.

    • Good point, Alec! I don’t read much on Kindle anymore, and had forgotten about the syncing it allows between audio and e-books. I might give that a shot.

  3. I love listening to academic or even popular history audiobooks. It’s nice to know others do too–I occasionally get told that listening to audiobooks isn’t “real reading.” Maybe, maybe not, but I really enjoy it. It’s a great way to get or remain informed about topics one doesn’t specialize in. It’s also a great way to revisit a book you may have read years ago but want to refresh your memory. Here’s just a handful I’ve listened to this year:

    1) Abraham Lincoln: A Life, by Michael Burlingame
    2) Mencken: The American Iconoclast, by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers
    3) The Hemingses of Monticello, by Annette Gordon-Reed (h/t Ben Park for pushing this one up my list…it’s beyond marvelous)
    4) Edmund Morris’s three volumes on Theodore Roosevelt
    5) Vietnam: A History, by Stanley Karnow
    6) The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, by Robert Middlekauff
    7) Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, by Allen C. Guelzo

    • Thanks, John! I second several of those suggestions. Do you find also find biographies to be particularly well-suited to the audiobook format?

  4. Pingback: Juvenile Instructor » Mormon Studies Audiobooks

  5. I just wanted to point out that in addition to services like Audible and Amazon, many public libraries have eBooks and audiobooks available through the web or the OverDrive app. On a recent drive between Virginia and New York State, my smartphone did double duty as GPS and radio (the book in question was Ngaio Marsh’s Artists in Crime).

  6. I have been an subscriber for about 5 years, and love audio books. My preferences are for American history, politics, and Catholicism, but I will also listen to other historical fields, science, and general interest, but I have never tried fiction. The selection for environmental history (my specialty) is really weak. As I see it, by taking up my non-environmental reading, audiobooks give me more book time towards my specialty field. Here are my favorites in no order:
    Tony Judt, Postwar (a 40+ hour monster)
    Elizabeth Varon, Disunion
    Plohky, Yalta
    Charles Lane, The Day Freedom Died
    Sheldon Stern, The Week the World Stood Still
    Joseph Hallinan, Why we make Mistakes
    Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial
    Alan Taylor, Civil War of 1812
    John Diggins, Ronal Reagan
    Joshua Foer, Moonwalking with Einstein
    Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth

  7. I’ve been burning through audiobooks via Audible for a while now, so my list has gotten fairly extensive. Almost all are nonfiction, with the exception of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

    Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
    Thomas Healy, The Great Dissent
    Steven Wise, Though the Heavens May Fall
    Carl Hart, High Price
    Bernard Bailyn, The Barbarous Years
    Ha-Joon Chang, 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism
    Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century
    Douglas Egerton, The Wars of Reconstruction
    Marcus Rediker, The Slave Ship
    Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels
    David Davis, Inhuman Bondage
    Philip Nicholson, Labor’s Story in the United States
    Matthew Parker, The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire, and War in the West Indies
    Philip Blom, A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the Enlightenment
    Matthew Stewart, Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic
    Gordon Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution
    Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics
    Yuval Levin, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of the Right and Left
    Matt Taibbi, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap

    My own background is in 17th century labor history and immigration from the British Isles, so I pick up whatever books I can on that topic.


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