Diverting and Informative Audiobook Nonfiction for Summer Listening

For decades, I read almost no nonfiction. Although I was tempted occasionally, it was always a slog. Then I discovered audiobooks, and they opened up a whole new world world. Now, when I check out ALA’s Notable Books or Carnegie medalists, I’m more likely to have read the nonfiction than the fiction titles. The audiobook industry is exploding—you’ll find almost all popular titles, nonfiction and otherwise, on audio—so now is the perfect time to explore the pleasures of nonfiction.

Mary Beard’s entertaining and informative SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome dispels myths (the story of Romulus and Remus nursed by a she-wolf and Julius Caesar’s cry, “Et tu, Brute?” among them) and presents a variety of characters and events, along with fascinating historical, cultural, and social details. Narrator Phyllida Nash’s companionable tone also reflects Beard’s clear enthusiasm for the topic.

Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson remains a favorite for fans of true adventure, World War II mysteries, and deep sea diving. Divers discovered the wreck of a German U-Boat off the coast of New Jersey, but the deep waters made exploring it perilous. Kurson also shares his research into the U-Boat’s history and its crew—another fascinating and adventure-filled story. Michael Pritchard’s mesmerizing reading of this riveting action-packed tale creates an edge-of-the-chair listening experience.

Looking for a feel-good true-life drama? Check out The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, the story of nine collegians from the University of Washington and their journey to becoming Olympic champions in 1936. Based on interviews, journals, and diaries, the book offers a real you-are-there feel, and in the hands of narrator extraordinaire Edward Herrmann, it becomes an unforgettable listening experience. Pair it with filmed footage of their gold medal race in Leni Riefenstahl’s film, Olympia: Festival of the Nations, to complete the experience.

You may be familiar with The Zookeeper’s Wife from the recent film, but the book by Diane Ackerman outshines the movie. Although it was published ten years ago, Ackerman’s book fits in with more recent histories of WWII that spotlight characters and events outside of major battles. The Warsaw Zoo has been mostly destroyed—the Germans took the best animals to Berlin and then bombed the city. So zoo director Jan Zabinski and his wife, Antonina, shelter several hundred Jews along with the remaining animals. Narrator Suzanne Toren transforms this heartwarming, engaging account into a magical exploration of character and history.

Journalist Bill Bryson has traveled around the world and reported on locales both mundane and unusual, as well as on the people who live there. His love of the eccentric is given full rein in many of his books—In a Sunburned Country (the Australia you won’t find in travel books), A Walk in the Woods (his adventures walking—or trying to walk—the Appalachian Trail), The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid (growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, in the 1950s). But his lively curiosity is given full rein in At Home, a quirky history of objects in his English home, from the toilet to cupboards and much more. Bryson’s reading reflects his wit and humor, from the understated to the outrageous.

My educational background is in the humanities, not science and math, but through audiobooks I’ve even been able to explore those worlds without fear. Scientist and researcher Sy Montgomery also reads her captivating The Soul of an Octopus. Who knew these creatures were so intelligent, interesting, and downright comical? The audiobook is   delightful as well as informative.

I might once have said that fun and mathematics did not fit together in the same sentence—that is, until I listened to Tavia Gilbert’s engaging reading of Eugenia Cheng’s How to Bake Pi. Cheng makes category theory understandable and entertaining with examples from recipes, LEGOs, and more. If you don’t think mathematical formulas come off well on audio, this just might change your mind.

Finally, James Gleick’s Time Travel might have stretched the limits of my science tolerance, but his thesis that the rules of time travel are written not by scientists but by storytellers led to myriad examples of time travel in fiction—stories anyone can relate to. Narrator Rob Shapiro has read Gleick’s earlier books and his understanding and appreciation of the author enriches ours.

Some books are better heard than read. Sarah Vowell, who has such a distinctive voices both in what she writes and how she sounds, falls into this category, and Lafayette in the Somewhat United States presents history with a rather whimsical, irreverent twist. Mary Roach, too: Her quirky popular science books  provide driveway moments, like her decidedly offbeat looks at the uses of cadavers (Stiff) and humans at war (Grunt). The wonder is that her narrators can keep from laughing out loud along with us.

Lastly, if you still haven’t managed to get tickets to Hamilton, while away a few hours with Hamilton: The Revolution. This Audie-winning account of the play, from conception to production. Mariska Hargitay sets the stage and traces the history of the musical. Then load the accompanying CD on a computer to view the stage scenes, read the song lyrics, and listen to Lin-Manuel Miranda read footnotes. It’s impossible not to come away with a greater appreciation of Miranda’s research, intensity, humor, and enthusiasm.

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About the Author:

Joyce Saricks is Booklist's Audio Editor. In addition to overseeing audiobook coverage, she writes the column "At Leisure with Joyce Saricks." While listening to audiobooks, she enjoys her hobbies—cooking, walking, and traveling. Follow her on Twitter at @Booklist_Joyce.

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