Sara Hildreth is a reader, writer, and educator, as well as the co-host of Novel Pairings—a bookish podcast dedicated to diversifying the canon and putting contemporary literature into conversation with the classics. Find her on Instagram at @fictionmatters!
I love listening to classic books on audio. I’ve devoured tomes I never would have picked up in print and reread favorites to discover something completely new from the listening experience.
Classics can be daunting in any form. It might be just as scary to see that 30+ hour length as it is to see a 900+ page count. But there are many reasons why audiobooks can make even the most dense and lengthy classics more accessible and enjoyable for every type of reader. Read on to learn just a few.
1. The time commitment is less intimidating.
Reading a lengthy classic is a commitment in any format, but with an audiobook you can multitask. It can be incredibly challenging to carve time out of your day to read, but you can chip away at a classic on audio while you’re folding laundry, doing the dishes, or driving to work.
In addition to multitasking, audiobooks help stave off the anxiety of seeing long sentences and block text waiting for you on the page. I shudder when turning a page only to find margin-to-margin text with no paragraph breaks in sight. Besides avoiding that visceral reaction to an overwhelming page of text, audiobooks are perfectly paced with cadences that allow listeners to easily follow even the most complex sentences. The syntax of To the Lighthouse or Beloved may be difficult to follow on the page, but hearing an expert narrator navigate those complicated sentences makes them both clearer and more poetic, and can add to my comprehension and appreciation of the language.
2. You can hear the author’s voice and tone.
One of my favorite aspects of listening to classics is knowing definitively that I’m understanding the author’s tone. Archaic vocabulary and lengthy sentences can be dry, but that same language comes to life in the hands of an expert narrator. The dialect and poetic language of Their Eyes Were Watching God sparkle when read aloud. In audio format, Northanger Abbey is genuinely funny, Frankenstein just might give you the chills, Passing is thrillingly ominous, and Vanity Fair is dripping with snark. Even subtle character distinctions are more evident on audio. Mr. Collins’ ridiculousness is all the more prominent on audio, as is Polonius’ hypocrisy and Reverend Casaubon’s pretentious dullness.
3. A good narrator helps you get lost in the story.
Exploring classics on audio has reminded me that these texts are first and foremost great stories, which is why they are enduring in the first place. No matter how many classics I read and enjoy, starting a new one on the page almost always feels like work. Settling into the older language and style takes time and the process of having to decode difficult language often prevents me from really immersing myself in the world of the book. Audiobooks help me bypass those difficult steps and sink more quickly into the plot. On the page, it’s easy to get distracted by the language and forget that The Count of Monte Cristo is in fact a thrilling story or that The Odyssey is an epic adventure filled with gods and monsters.
And while many classics do contain a great story, it’s also true that many classic authors tend to take their time setting the scene and establishing context. This brand of early chapter can be unmotivating. It’s hard to keep picking up a book night after night only to find more explanation of village politics or the French legal system. Audiobooks allow readers to conquer those chapters more quickly and smoothly and help you avoid getting stuck rereading the same passages over and over. I’m not sure I would have stuck with books like Middlemarch, Les Misérables, or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall without the help of a great narrator who makes scene-setting and exposition enjoyable.
4. Re-listening to favorites is a completely new experience.
I had read Pride and Prejudice at least ten times before I downloaded the audiobook as a comforting listen during quarantine. I was looking to spend some quality time with my favorite characters, and while I certainly got that, I was also pleasantly surprised by how much more I took from my listening experience. Scenes I had forgotten about and passages I’d skimmed over leaped out at me, and I finished the book even more convinced of Jane Austen’s genius.
5. It might be how they were meant to be read.
Many classics were likely written to be heard as much as they were to be read. Silent reading didn’t become truly widespread until the late 19th century, and up until that shift, reading was largely considered a social activity. Families would gather together and, those who could, would take turns reading aloud and friends would read riotous periodicals out loud to each other in pubs. Because this was the norm, many books that we consider classics today were likely written with the knowledge that they would be shared orally. So you’re not only not cheating when you pick up Great Expectations or Cranford on audio, you’re probably experiencing it exactly how the author intended.
Looking to get started? Check out the playlist below for your next classic on audio.