Great audiobooks, read by the authors

Reading Time: What do you care? Your’e quarantined!

There are two mistakes people make when listening to audiobooks.

The first mistake is that they listen to the book while doing something other than listening to the book. Presumably, these productive hopefuls are still clinging to the myth of multitasking.  

While most of us can chew gum and walk at the same time, research suggests we cannot pay attention to two things at the same time. Sure, it feels like you’re able to, at the same time, listen attentively to your friend complain (again) about his horrible week and focus on mincing garlic without cutting yourself. But this is illusory.

What you are actually doing is alternating focus between the two. You listen to a couple words of how he’s been doing all the right things (as always) but getting no recognition, and then (mercifully) you drown him out, as you switch focus back on the garlic and stove. You end up completely missing the part about how (no surprise to him) it’s raining, again.

This might be a good thing when it comes to your kvetching friend or the news or even a podcast, but an obvious problem with audiobooks. If you’re trying to understand a hard or new concept, or follow along a complex story, you won’t be able to do so while looking for your next exit off the highway. You’ll inevitably find yourself hitting the :30 rewind over and over.

As for the second mistake, worry not, my attention-deprived friends. I am going to solve that right here.

The second mistake is listening to an audiobook with an uninteresting narrator. Just like those subjects in school taught by boring teachers, you will learn, and want to learn, much less.

Most audiobooks are read by actors. In fact, audiobooks have their own version of the Oscars called, the “Audies.” (I’ve included a list of winners of “narrated by the author” from the last 20 years at the bottom. Not surprisingly, many are actors themselves). The reason for this is that reading for an audiobook is difficult. It’s draining, takes a lot of time, takes the right microphone, studio, and apparently, even takes a certain type of clothing.

Books read by their own author offer a possible best-case scenario. Unlike an actor, the author, better than anyone, knows the material and cares about its message.

But, be careful. Another reason most books are read by actors: most authors are not great readers. Just because you can write, doesn’t mean you have the tone, personality, and patience to perform. And make no mistake, reading is a performance.

But some, like Malcolm Gladwell or Liz Gilbert or Steve Martin can do it all. Like the great Singer-Soingwriters of the 1970s, they can write and play. Through listening to dozens of audiobooks each year, I’ve compiled a list of seventeen of my favorite “performing authors” below. I’ve also included a few hybrids— read by the author and someone else— at the end under “Bonus: Hybrids.”

Don’t spend too much time deciding. They are all great. But whichever you choose, just make sure you listen to your friend’s sob story first— he’ll appreciate the full attention.

Then go out for a walk on a quiet road, press play, and get inspired.

The List (In no particular order):

(1) Born Standing Up, Steve Martin.

  • Tags: Autobiography, Comedy, Writing, Philosophy
  • Listening Time: 4 Hours, 2 Minutes

It turns out Steve Matin is more than a goofball. He’s an incredible writer with a penchant for the romantic and philosophical. The book chronicles Martin’s life through his early years, how he came to be a magician-turned-comedian, and how he became good, then how he became great, and why he finally moved on.

The book is short, funny, pithy, and I learned a ton. I’ve listened to it multiple times. (For more, I wrote here, and watch his Masterlcass).

(2) The Art of Learning, Josh Waitskin.

  • Tags: Autobiography, How To Learn, Philosophy, Writing, Fighting, Chess
  • Listening Time: 7 Hours, 55 Min

An obviously small percentage of people have become the best at a skill on a world-wide stage. Waitskin has done it twice (chess + tai chi push hands), and is working on a third (jujitsu). Like Martin, with a philosophical bent, Waitskin details his process of learning and applies it across mediums. Another multiple listen for me. This book is important and very well-read.  

(3) Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert

  • Tags: Creativity, Artist, Writing, Belief, Magic.
  • Listen Time: 5 hours, 6 Minutes

Oh, man. Where to start. If you feel you want to be an artist or creative, but something is holding you back, read this book. If you want to be inspired and laugh, read this book. If you feel you don’t have the right to be an artist, read this book. If you’re the kinda guy who’s thinking to yourself– wait a second, bro, you want me to read a magic book by that chick who wrote Eat Pray Love— read this book.

If you’re a little squeamish when it comes to things like “magic” or “souls”— don’t worry, I get it. Ignore those part and listen to the rest. One of the best-read books of all time. And one of the truest.

(4) We Learn Nothing, Tim Kreider

  • Tags: Essays, Humor, Real Life
  • Listen Time: 6 Hours, 40 Min

Speaking of well-read and truest books. The pitch for this audio is that all you need to do is listen to the first 10 minutes (the first essay), and you’ll get it. You’ll be in or you’ll be out. My guess is, you’ll be in.

Kreider is hilarious, insightful, and, most importantly, from Maryland, which, according to science, makes him a genius.

(5) Setting the Table, Danny Meyer

  • Tags: Autobiography, Business, Culture, Management, Restauranteur
  • Listening Time: 5 Hours, 33 Min

Unfortunately, you likely know of Meyer because of his massively successful burger joint, Shake Shack, a now national chain that did over $400 million in revenue last year. For my money, the Shake Shack burger is fine, but is it really better than Five Guys or In-And-Out or even Fudruckers?

Burgers aside, to people who know fine dinning, what Danny Meyer is better known for are his 15 or so other restaurants in New York City, many of them Michelin grade, all of them eminently hospitable. In his autobiography, Setting the Table, Meyer, describes his famous “Enlightened Hospitality.” A theory of management and employee culture that has influenced CEOs across industries, and will certainly influence the operation of any business I start.

If you want to learn an inspiring, effective perspective on management, marketing, culture-building, and perseverance, as well as the remarkable story of one of the worlds foremost Restaurateurs, listen to this book.

(6) Becoming, Michelle Obama

  • Tags: Autobiography, First Lady, Intimate, Human
  • Listen Time: 19 Hours, 3 Minutes

The most compelling thing about listening to Michelle Obama is that you cannot help but think her as authentic and human. It was reassuring to hear the voice of a mother, and very successful lawyer, business person, and politician in her own right, describe the times when she felt lost or scared. And just as inspiring to hear of her triumphs. And, let us not forget, that this is the lady who attracted Barack Obama and spent eight years with him in one of the most powerful houses in the world. Lots to learn.

(7) Power Moves, Adam Grant

  • Tags: Davos, Business, Power, Psychology, Interview-Based
  • Listen Time: 3 Hours, 3 Minutes

Adam Grant is Wharton’s top-rated professor, a world-renowned researcher, and, more to the point here, a great speaker. This book is a built-for-audio account of his time at Davos— the Swiss town that hosts the the World Economic Forum. It includes interviews with “top executives at Google, GM, Slack, and Goldman Sachs, the CEO of the Gates Foundation, and NASA’s former chief scientist.” The subject of the book is the many ways we think about power in the 21st century. Trust me, it’s relevant to everyone.

Adam is a one of the most interesting thinkers I know of right now. He’s written four other books, two of which I’ve written about at length (here, here).

(8) Lynchpin, Seth Godin

  • Tags: Business, Marketing, Psychology, Entrepreneurship, Life
  • Listen Time: 8 Hours, 19 Minutes

It’s no secret, I’m a huge Godin fan. I’ve read at least 10 of his books, I’ve seen him speak on numerous occasions, and I took his AltMBA workshop (which I wrote about at length, here). For me, this is his best, all-encompassing book.

Most of his books take one single subject (marketing, enduring through hard work, etc), and they’re great. Lynchpin is a mindset and a way of being in business (and life), so it necessarily covers an array of topics. That’s very valuable from someone with such a varied skill set. Seth’s voice and tone I find engaging and inspiring.

(9) Born To Run, Bruce Springsteen

  • Tags: The Boss
  • Listening Time: 18 Hours, 12 Minutes

What can you say? It’s the Boss. I was never really that big of a Springsteen guy growing up, through college. If anything, the oddly New Jersian haven that is the University of Maryland, pushed me further from Boss fandom. But since then, seeing him live in NYC, seeing his one-man, Broadway show, and reading and listening to this book have changed my perspective.

There is much to learn, sure. After all, he’s been a sought after performer for 50 years. But there’s even more to relate to and to marvel at. Especially when told in his own words.

(10) What I Know For Sure, Oprah

  • Tags: Autobiography, Intention, Belief, Connection
  • Listen Time: 3 Hours, 53 Minutes

I’m not even big into Oprah, but there’s one thing I know for sure: whenever billionaires who, by all accounts of anyone who knows them, combine all of the work ethic, acuity, and cunning of a business mogul, with the E.Q., forgivingness, and heart of a motherly saint, I read their mother effin’ book.  In this semi-autographical, short book, Oprah lays out what she believes she’s has learned “for sure” in the last 40 years. Probably a nugget or two in there, eh?

Here, we have the additional pleasure of listening to Oprah’s voice, which is lovely.

(11) Between The World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

  • Tags: Autobiography, Race, Prejudice, Belief, New Perspective
  • Listen Time: 3 Hours, 35 Minutes

We read and hear and watch a lot on race these days (probably not enough). But this perspective is one all in its own, and it is very challenging. In fact, this book is sure to make you question your own stance on race, conscious or otherwise. It’s hard to imagine this book not impacting one who listens to it. The words are powerful and the voice and delivery are deliberate and real.

Trust me. This book needs to be read.

More on my perspective on this book here.

(12) Becoming Wise, Krista Tippett

  • Tags: Autobiography, Wisdom, Slowing Down, Spirituality, Thinking, Loving, Forgiving
  • Listen Time: 9 Hours, 54 Minutes

If you’re unfamiliar with Tippett and her podcast On Being, here’s a snip from Amazon:

“Peabody Award-winning broadcaster and National Humanities Medalist Krista Tippett has interviewed the most extraordinary voices examining the great questions of meaning for our time. The heart of her work on her national public radio program and podcast, On Being, has been to shine a light on people whose insights kindle in us a sense of wonder and courage. Scientists in a variety of fields; theologians from an array of faiths; poets, activists, and many others have all opened themselves up to Tippett’s compassionate yet searching conversation.”

Her voice is very soothing, almost sounding like one of those late night with Delilah / Sleepless in Seattle -type voices, but it comes across with a lot of discernment and intelligence and care.

I liked to listen to this book on evening walks, as Krista has the ability to transport you somewhere positive and light, even if the topics being considered are hard, even cruel.

[More here]

(13) What The Dog Saw, Malcolm Gladwell

  • Tags: Essays, Profiles, New Look At Old Ideas, New Yorker
  • Listen Time: 12 Hours, 49 Minutes

Why do we love Gladwell? It’s not because he’s always right. It’s not because we always agree with him. It’s because he gets us to look again at something we thought we understood. Well, that’s at least why we love his writing. But his speaking we love for a different reason.

If you’ve never heard his podcast, or seen him or heard him speak either on stage or in an interview, you are missing out. He might be the best speaker, or the most interesting one, I’ve ever seen. If audiobooks are better read by the author in proportion to the amount the author cares about, or is interested in, their material— there’s no better narrator than Gladwell.

This book is my favorite to listen to in the Gladwell cannon because you get so many different ideas and perspectives for the price of one. But all of them are great.

(14) Drive, Dan Pink

  • Tags: Motivation, Pop Psychology, Business
  • Listen Time: 5 Hours, 53 Minutes

Dan Pink takes a sort of Gladwellian approach to “big ideas” but he definitely adds in his own personality, which is also energetic and funny.

Drive is about the subject of motivation: what motivates us and what sustains that drive. I found a lot of his views to be helpful, counterintuitive, and entertaining.

(15) How Not To Die, Dr. Michael Greger

  • Tags: Health, Nutrition, Plant-based, Evidence-Based, Funny
  • Listen time: 17 Hours, 9 Minutes

You probably have a position on plant-based diets right now: they’re good, they’re not worth it, how you could never give up cheese, etc. But whatever your current view, you shouldn’t finalize it until you hear Dr. Greger’s argument.

I encountered this book long before I was plant-based and this was one of the main drivers of me giving the diet a try. Why? Because he didn’t rely on the cult of “Vegan.” He relied on evidence.

How Not To Die looks at the top ten or so causes of death in the US and shows the benefits of a whole-food plant-based diet in fighting them. That’s clinically tested, peer-reviewed benefits, not the psycho-babble of the anti-meat or pro-meat worlds.

The added benefit of the audiobook is that he is absolutely hysterical.

(16) Waking Up, Sam Harris

  • Tags: Meditation, Consciousness, ‘Spirituality without religion’
  • Listening Time: 5 Hours, 53 Minutes

Another shocking book for me. This was probably the book that most propelled me from a sorta-meditating to an everyday meditator for the last five years.

The book talks about Harris’s own journey into the world of mindfulness, explains what mindfulness is, and why it is a much better answer than organized religion (Harris is a staunch atheist).

He’s a phenomenal reader as well.

(17) Dreams of My Father, Barack Obama

  • Tags: President, Romantic, Autobiography
  • Reading Time: 7 Hours, 8 Minutes

I mean, it’s Obama. So you know it is going to be well-read.

The most interesting part about this book is that it was written before the presidency. And yet, Barak still carries in his voice this sense of hope and assuredness and leadership that makes him feel like he was born for the job.

The book, written just after law school and into his political life, is about his early life, his parents, and how he came to form a lot of his ideas and a life of civil service.

A real treat.

Bonus: Hybrids.

These books are mostly read by narrators other than the authors, but also involve the author in a significant way. They are also three of the better books I’ve ever read.

  • Total Recall, Aahhnold. The Governator reads the final chapter which recounts all his life lessons. It’s phenomenal. (More here).
  • Principles, Ray Dalio. He reads the first, biographical part— which is the best part. (More here).
  • MLK’s Autobiography. First, the narrator is really great. Second, many of the speeches are the actual audio delivered live by MLK. As I wrote here—everyone should read this book. Just be prepared to cry.

Audie Winners “Read By The Author” 2000-2020

2019 Lucy Strange, Author/Narrator of The Secret of Nightingale Wood.

2018  Neil Gaiman, Author/Narrator of Norse Mythology.

2017  Bryan Cranston, Author/Narrator of A Life in Parts.

2016.  Kate Mulgrew, Author/Narrator of Born with Teeth: A Memoir.

2015.  Alan Cumming, Author/Narrator of Not My Father’s Son.

2014.  Billy Crystal, Author/Narrator of Still Foolin’ ‘Em: Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, and Where the Hell are My Keys?.

2013  Janis Ian, Author/Narrator of Society’s Child: My Autobiography.

2012: Libba Bray, Author/Narrator of Beauty Queens.

2011: Emma Thompson, Author/Narrator of Nanny McPhee Returns aka Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang.

2010: Neil Gaiman, Author/Narrator of Odd and the Frost Giants.

2009: David Sedaris, Author/Narrator of When You Are Engulfed in Flames.

2008: Garrison Keillor, Author/Narrator of Pontoon: A Novel of Lake Wobegon.

2007: T. C. Boyle, Author/Narrator of The Tortilla Curtain.

2006: J. R. Moehringer, Author/Narrator of The Tender Bar: A Memoir.

2005: Richard Clarke, Author/Narrator of Against All Enemies.

Prior to 2005, this award category was titled: “Solo Narration by the Author or Authors”

2004: Anne Garrels, Author/Narrator of Naked in Baghdad: The Iraq War as Seen by National Public Radio’s Correspondent.

2003: Fannie Flagg, Author/Narrator of Standing in the Rainbow.

2002: Rick Bragg, Author/Narrator of Ava’s Man.

2001: Sidney Poitier, Author/Narrator of The Measure of a Man.

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