Determining the best audiobooks of all time is a highly subjective process. What makes an audiobook the best? Do they have to have famous narrators or an ensemble cast? Are the most popular audiobooks the best, or do they have to be award-winning to be the best?
Audiobooks have come a long way since their first iteration in 1932. Back then, the American Foundation for the Blind created book recordings on vinyl records, which only held about 15 minutes of speech per side. Over the following decades, cassette tapes and then compact discs became the new media for recorded books.
In recent years, audiobooks have steadily increased in popularity. According to the Audio Publishers Association’s annual sales survey, audiobook sales have increased by double-digit percentages every year for the past decade. Furthermore, the pandemic appears to have increased the use of audiobooks, particularly among children.
Of course, with audiobooks being more popular then ever, their quality and variety are at an all-time high. Be they full cast performances or single narrator romps, a good recorded book can immerse readers in the author’s world in a way that is entirely different from print texts. The best audiobooks bring our favorite characters to life, capturing the voices that heretofore only existed in our minds.
For this list, the best audiobooks of all time will be determined by the very nonscientific process of one book nerd and her Facebook friends. Said book nerd has also scoured the internet, if “scoured” means the half-assed way I used to wash pots when my mother made me do the dishes in middle school. In other words, I think these are all great audiobooks but it’s not a definitive list.
Note that my focus is on the performance of the readers, not the quality or content of the books themselves.
Best Audiobooks of All Time Read by Multiple Narrators
The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon; Read by Bahni Turpin, Raymond Lee, and Dominic Hoffman
If you haven’t read this book, which has also been adapted into a movie, then listen to it ASAP. It is well cast and the reading is absolutely beautiful. Much of the book takes place in a single, eventful day when Jamaican American Natasha and Korean American Daniel meet and quickly fall in love. Unfortunately, Natasha and her family are scheduled to be deported the following day. You’ll lose yourself in this lush prose and heart-wrenching story.
American Gods: The Tenth Anniversary Edition by Neil Gaiman; Read by Ron McLarty, Daniel Oreskes and a Full Cast
This edition of Gaiman’s beloved novel is considered his “director’s cut” because it includes unpublished material from his original manuscript. The leads provide stunning portrayals of the arrogant Mr. Wednesday and relatable protagonist Shadow Moon.
World War Z: The Complete Edition: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks; Read by Alan Alda, Mark Hamill, Carl & Rob Reiner, and John Turturro
This well-known work was the winner of the Audie for Multi-Voiced Performance in 2014. Combining the original abridged recording and new unabridged recordings, the audiobook boasts the voice talents of celebrities like Mark Hamill.
The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty; Read by the Author and Eliana Shaskan
I, an uncultured swine, had never seen The Exorcist when I decided to listen to the audiobook. Dear reader, that was a mistake. After listening to this incredible performance of the deeply disturbing source material, the movie adaptation paled in comparison. This is a must-listen for any self-respecting horror fan.
Same Sun Here; Written and Read by Silas House and Neela Vaswani
This audiobook was a 2013 Audie Award Nominee for Children’s Titles for Ages 8–12. Of course, a story written in two voices is perfect for multiple narrators. The two readers both give masterful performances that capture the very different voices of the two protagonists.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders; Read by Nick Offerman and a Full Cast
The term “a full cast” is an understatement here. This 2018 Audie Award winner for Audiobook of the Year is read by 166 narrators. Among them are celebrities like Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, Susan Sarandon, Bill Hader, and more.
Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo; Read by the Author and Melania-Luisa Marte
Elizabeth Acevedo is easily one of the most vital voices of our time. She lends her voice to this audiobook, bringing her unique insight into the characters to her performance. This beautiful novel-in-verse is perfect for audio, so it’s a true treat for the ears.
Best Audiobooks of All Time Read by a Single Narrator
Brown Girl Dreaming; Written and Read by Jacqueline Woodson
I know I just said this about Elizabeth Acevedo, but Jacqueline Woodson is unarguably one of the best authors of our time. Brown Girl Dreaming is a the story of Woodson’s childhood, told in beautiful verse. Naturally, there’s no better reader for it than the author herself.
A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin; Read by Roy Dotrice
Roy Dotrice is one of the best audiobook narrators of all time. Consequently, he is the perfect voice for such an epic story. He does the sprawling cast of characters justice with his incredibly varied voice work.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Written and Read by Maya Angelou
Mother Maya Angelou needs no introduction. Her words are poetry and she delivers them like no one else could. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is an autobiographical tale of pain and resilience that has inspired readers for decades.
The Stand by Stephen King; Read by Grover Gardner
The Stand is an epic story of a civilization-ending illness that maybe hits too close to home in the current era. Still, Grover Gardner’s performance is absolutely spellbinding. Each of the many characters has a unique voice, complete with subtle nuances that reflect a deep understanding of the source material.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern; Read by Jim Dale
I hate to mention those magic books I so love (because of their hateful TERF of an author), but the audiobook performance is superb. Jim Dale is incredible and does all the voices in distinct and engaging ways. While The Night Circus doesn’t have as many unique characters as those books, it’s a great book and Dale does a phenomenal job.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas; Read by Bahni Turpin
Bahni Turpin is one of my favorite audiobook narrators (which is why she’s making another appearance on this list). She captures protagonist Starr perfectly in Angie Thomas’s seminal novel, The Hate U Give. While Starr is written as a relatable character you can’t help but root for, Turpin truly brings her to life.
Born a Crime; Written and Read by Trevor Noah
Let me count the ways I love Trevor Noah. Actually, we haven’t got the time or space for that. Instead, I will just say his memoir was made to be listened to. The Xhosa and Zulu language interwoven through the story are so beautiful in his voice. You just can’t get the same experience reading this one on the page.
Circe by Madeline Miller; Read by Perdita Weeks
Perdita Weeks outdoes herself in this audio recording. Circe on audio is an EXPERIENCE. For 12 hours, you will become lost in a world that feels more real than our own, thanks to Weeks’s stellar performance.
The Dutch House by Anne Patchett; Read by Tom Hanks
Tom. Hanks. Need I say more?
Beloved Written and Read by Toni Morrison
Here we have another absolute icon reading an iconic story in her own voice. The pain on the page becomes that much more heartwrenching in Morrison’s vocal performance. Whether you’ve read this Pulitzer Prize–winner or not, the audiobook is more than worth your time.
Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson; Read by Marin Ireland
I listened to this book earlier this year and I cannot express how much I recommend you do the same. It’s a touching, outlandish, and hilarious story as written, but Marin Ireland takes it to an entirely new level. Her use of dialect and the raw honesty of her performance is unparalleled. Seriously, listen to it immediately.
Becoming Written and Read by Michelle Obama
Finally, if you didn’t know Michelle Obama’s memoir would be on this list, then you likely are new to the world of audiobooks. This Grammy Award Winner for Best Spoken Word Album 2020 is a refreshingly honest, inspiring look at the life of our former First Lady. Nobody could’ve read it like she did, so we’re all lucky she took the narration reins.
Get these best audiobooks of all time in your ears ASAP! If you’re looking for even more great audiobook recommendations, the lists below can help.