There are books that are just perennial favorites on high school reading lists. These are wonderful English and American novels, memoirs, plays, poetry. They are part of the canon of written art, and definitely worth reading.
But sometimes these books are a challenge on the page for students. Many of the books that we all read in school were written more than a century ago, in language that feels antiquated today. They can be difficult to decode and hard to absorb.
In their book Listening to Learn: Audiobooks Supporting Literacy, Sharon Grover and Lizette D. Hannegan address this:
“To be a fully successful reader, students must not only decode those often-incomprehensible marks on the page, but also infer meaning from both literary and informational texts. This can be a difficult task.”
Grover and Hannegan discuss the benefits of audiobooks for ELL students, special education students, reluctant readers, or students who just need some additional help with comprehension. They quote The Commission on Reading’s Becoming a Nation of Readers: “The single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children.”
These benefits don’t stop when kids get to high school. As a school librarian, I believe that audiobooks absolutely “count” as reading the book. The key is to make sure you’re listening to an unabridged version to get the complete text. And if there are multiple versions (which happens frequently with older books), pick one with a great narrator to keep listeners engaged.
Here’s a list of some audiobook classics, with our narrator recommendations.
1984 Simon Prebble does a great job with George Orwell’s bleak tale of a totalitarian future. There aren’t many versions of this audiobook, but Prebble is a pro with it.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Many, many, many audiobook versions of Mark Twain’s novel are out there. I really like the version done by Matt Armstrong, but Elijah Wood’s reading is also pretty great.
Animal Farm There is a dramatized version of Orwell’s story that features a full cast performing it, but Ralph Cosham’s straight reading of the book is worth a listen.
Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl Selma Blair’s reading of the most famous written work of the Holocaust reminds you that Anne Frank was a real teenage girl like everyone else until her world fell apart. It makes her story even more searing.
Brave New World Aldous Huxley’s novel about Utopia gets a great performance here from stage actor Michael York. He’s a little campy and often over-the-top, but so are the characters in this book.
Catch-22 Joseph Heller’s World War II novel is well narrated by Jay O. Sanders, a character actor you might recognize from TV if you Google him. His Yossarian helps bring the whole surreal novel to life.
Count of Monte Cristo Alexandre Dumas’ tale of the falsely-accused Dantes is long. Really, really long. There are several audiobook versions, and depending on the narrator it can take anywhere from 43 hours to 52 hours to listen to the whole unabridged tale (some performers like to take their time). My favorite is the 46-hour version read by John Lee, who moves the story along and keeps it interesting.
The Crucible This is a great full-cast performance of Arthur Miller’s play, with some famous actors from the 70s and 80s (Stacy Keach, Richard Dreyfuss). It won’t include the stage notes, but you’ll get all the creepy hysteria of the story.
Fahrenheit 451 The Tim Robbins-narrated version of Bradbury’s novel about censorship is really effective. His voice gets across the casual way Guy Montag enjoyed burning books and the transition he undergoes throughout the story.
Frankenstein I really like the deep, raspy reading from Jim Donaldson, it adds to the creep factor. There are other great versions with strong narrators, but Donaldson’s voice works for this story.
The Grapes of Wrath Steinbeck’s novel about the Great Depression is famously bleak, but narrator Dylan Baker will help you navigate its heartbreak.
Great Expectations When you can listen to an audiobook narrated by Simon Vance, do it. His version of Dickens’ book about Pip and Estella is the best of all the options out there. And there are several.
The Great Gatsby Jake Gyllenhaal is really surprising in this audiobook version from 2013, authorized by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s estate.
Heart of Darkness Brian Hall’s reading of Joseph Conrad’s novel is my favorite. His accent can be thick at times, but he does the best job of portraying the rough sailor Marlow and the terrible things he saw in Africa.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Maya Angelou narrates her own memoir, and if you’ve never heard Ms. Angelou speak this is a great opportunity. She tells the story of her childhood so powerfully, you won’t want her to stop.
Jane Eyre The tortured romance between Mr. Rochester and Jane Eyre is available with a few narrators, but actress Juliet Stevenson does it best.
The Metamorphosis Franz Kafka’s surreal novel of a man who suddenly becomes a bug has more audiobook versions than almost any other book on this list. But Martin Jarvis’s reading is the best if you can find it.
The Odyssey There are a few star-studded versions of Homer’s tale on audiobook, but I like the one narrated by John Lee the best. He’s one of the better narrators out there.
Of Mice and Men Gary Sinise, who starred in a film adaptation of Steinbeck’s book, narrates the heartbreaking story of George and Lennie with great skill.
Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen’s most-loved classic actually has two great performances on audiobook. Both Lindsay Duncan (title link) and Rosamund Pike, who played Jane Bennet in the most recent movie version, make for excellent listening to the story of Lizzie and Mr. Darcy.
Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare is meant to be performed, and sometimes he can be tough to get through on paper. The full cast version with Calista Flockhart and Richard Chamberlain will help bring the whole story to life, but you may still want to follow along with the book to get all the stage directions and notes.
The Scarlet Letter Nathaniel Hawthorne’s depressing book about Hester Prynne is sometimes narrated by a man, sometimes by a woman. It should be read by a woman, since it is her story, and Kate Petrie’s version from last year is by far the best.
The Complete Sherlock Holmes Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective has been narrated for audiobook by several great performers. Derek Jacobi has a great voice to listen to if you find individual books and stories, but if you want to tackle the complete collection at once, Simon Vance’s version is fantastic.
A Tale of Two Cities There are a few audiobook versions of this Dickens classic, but if you can, listen to the one narrated by Simon Vance. He’s an incredible narrator who has done several great audiobooks, including the whole Girl with a Dragon Tattoo series.
Their Eyes Were Watching God Ruby Dee is a legendary actress and activist, and she brings Zora Neal Hurston’s novel to life with an incredibly layered performance. This is one of the shortest novels on the list, but she really makes it larger than life.
To Kill a Mockingbird Sissy Spacek takes on the Harper Lee classic and brings Scout to life. It’s a spot-on performance.
Treasure Island You might remember Alfred Molina as Doc Oc in *Spider-Man 2*, and his splendid reading of the adventures of Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver shouldn’t be missed.
Wuthering Heights Go for Juliet Stevenson’s version of the infamous romance between Cathy and Heathcliff. She is a wonderful performer.