A little-known fact about me: I love listening to nonfiction. In fact, I may prefer listening to biography and history than reading it. Audiobook nonfiction, however, comes with a negative: What about the maps and photos and other visuals often included in the print edition? I solve that problem by checking the book out of the library or buying it. I'm lucky because my father enjoys nonfiction, so I simply pass the print book to him when I'm done with the audio. The next best solution is to look for maps and photos online.
Whether you're new to nonfiction on audio or are looking for your next great listen, take a look at my suggestions. I can wholeheartedly recommend the following titles.
One of my favorite books from 2011 was the Robert K. Massie's Catherine the Great. As I said in my review in December 2011, Massie "draws a complex portrait of the often-misunderstood empress. Relying on primary sources (including Catherine's diaries and letters) and firsthand accounts, Massie unveils the personal and private sides of one of Russia's strongest leaders." Catherine lived during a time of great transition—revolutions, the Enlightenment, and new technology were changing the face of the world—making her story both complex and compelling.
The unabridged audio edition (Random House Audio; 23 hr, 52 min) is read by Mark Deakins, whose pacing and inflections are well matched to Massie's prose. Listeners will appreciate Deakins's subtle changes in inflection to signal quotations and extracts. In addition, he handles the pronunciation of Russian, Latin, French, and German with ease. Catherine the Great is a highly readable biography that's made even more accessible with Deakins behind the mic.
Henry VII is suddenly becoming popular. The founder of the Tudor dynasty, who is has been called the uniter of England, is often overlooked in favor of his more famous descendants. Thomas Penn's Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England tells us the true story of the man who won a kingdom. Penn presents a well-rounded picture of Henry VII, who was a person of great contrasts. Although he could be cleverly shrewd, he also had bouts of obsessive craziness, instilling fear in even his most loyal subjects. Henry's rule was fraught with so much political scheming, acquisition of money, and manipulation of power, it's easy to forget Winter King is nonfiction.
The unabridged audio edition (Blackstone Audio, 14 hr, 34 min) is read by Simon Vance. Vance's expressive reading and careful pacing keep listeners fully engaged with Penn's well-researched biography. He varies his pitch and tone to differentiate between text and quotations and smoothly transitions among the several languages (English, Latin, and Spanish, in particular) found in the text. Vance's narration of Winter King is not to be missed.
You can hardly be unaware that this month marks the 100th anniversary of the Titanic's sinking. As you compile your commemorative reading list, don't forget Richard Davenport-Hines's Voyagers of the Titanic: Passengers, Sailors, Shipbuilders, Aristocrats, and the Worlds They Came From. Davenport-Hines takes a unique approach, focusing on the people connected to the ship: the financiers, riveters, and sailors as well as all classes of passengers and crew. We learn how these individuals handled themselves from their first encounter with the Titanic as well as on the night of the sinking and in the days after the disaster. This is a fascinating and very personal look at the great ocean liner, from its birth to its death.
The unbridged audio edition (Harper Audio, 11 hr, 18 min) is read by veteran narrator Robin Sachs. Sachs's approach is to step back just a bit to allow listeners to form their own reactions to the interlinked stories of the people whose lives converged on the decks of the Titanic. Whether recounting the experiences of the second-class passengers, revealing the contents of the late John Jacob Astor's pockets, or discussing the training of the liner's sailors, Sach pulls listeners into the book. Don't miss Voyagers of the Titanic's fresh perspective, which includes little-known and newly discovered facts.
What do you know about the Atlantic Ocean? Probably not as much as you think you do. Simon Winchester's Atlantic offers both a historical overview and a more intimate look at the sea that has been a major player in Western civilization for millennia. As I mentioned in my January 2011 review, "The book covers quite a bit of material, but the organization of the text keeps the reader engaged. Rather than follow a strictly chronological path, Winchester breaks the ocean's story into different aspects." Thus each chapter is devoted to a single topic: fishing, trade, and the people who live on the ocean's shores, for example. Indeed, Atlantic lives up to its subtitle: Great Sea Battles Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories.
The unabridged audio edition (Harper Audio; 14 h, 30 m) is read by Simon Winchester himself. It can be a risky thing to choose a book read by its author, but Winchester's voice is clear and easy to listen to. His enthusiasm for the Atlantic is evident, but he in no way goes over the line to the dramatic. At the same time, he's a natural with pacing and expression, drawing listeners into the fascinating story of the great ocean. Winchester's Atlantic includes an enthralling mix of topics.
If there's interest I'll consider making this a sporadic feature. I've listened to quite a lot of nonfiction (in a variety of genres) over the years and am happy to share the memorable titles.