I’m an avid audiobook listener, but if given the choice between a 40-hour epic and half a dozen shorter tales, I’ll go for the shorter audiobooks almost every single time. Why? For the same reason a lot of people enjoy one-sitting books—I love the satisfaction of experiencing an entire audiobook in an evening spent running errands, cooking dinner, and folding my laundry. Plus, when I’m listening to a short audiobook, I never think about speeding up the narration to finish faster so I can start a new one—instead, I’m able to savor every minute.
Here are five of the best audiobooks under five hours that I’ve listened to.
3 hours and 7 minutes
This novella from the author of BROOKLYN follows the internal monologue of Mary, mother of Jesus. Tóibín offers a unique characterization of Mary, revealing the bitterness and self-doubt of an aging woman as she reflects on her son’s life, death, and legacy. Meryl Streep narrates the audiobook with one of the most incredible performances I’ve ever heard in an audiobook. The breadth of subtle emotions in her voice come through so naturally that it was easy to forget she was reading from a book.
Read by Meryl Streep
Sure, we'd listen to Meryl Streep read the phone book, but this is SO. MUCH. BETTER! This story is an imaginative take on what Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, might say years after her son's death. To put it mildly, she's not the kindly, silent woman represented in thousands of years of art. Ms. Streep gives this Mary a backbone and displays some harsh judgement of herself and others. Did we mention it's Meryl Streep?!
Narrated by Meryl Streep
3 hours and 52 minutes
Jacqueline Woodson’s latest novel traces the ripple effects of an unplanned pregnancy on three generations. A full cast of narrators brings a richness to the voice of each central character as the story jumps through time—from Peter Francis James’s rich baritone narration as Po’Boy, the grandfather, to Bahni Turpin’s light yet mature interpretation of Melody, the unexpected baby who feels all grown up at age 16. The result is an engrossing audiobook that goes far deeper than you’d think possible in just under four hours.
Read by Jacqueline Woodson, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Peter Francis James, Shayna Small, and Bahni Turpin
1 hour and 22 minutes
This deeply moving poetry collection explores the author’s experience with incarceration and its aftermath. I got chills listening to Betts read—or rather, perform—his raw, affecting poems, a couple of which are set to a jazz backing track. I believe all good poetry is worthy of being revisited many times in order to fully appreciate the nuance and richness of each word. Betts’s poems are no exception. His narration offers a powerful interpretation of the work that is accessible on first listen, and also makes for an incredible way to revisit these poems again and again.
Read by Reginald Dwayne Betts
A searing volume by a poet whose work conveys “the visceral effect that prison has on identity” (New York Times).
Felon tells the story of one man in fierce, dazzling poems― canvassing his wide range of emotions and experiences through homelessness, underemployment, love, drug abuse, domestic violence, fatherhood, and grace― and, in doing so, creates a travelogue for an imagined life. Reginald Dwayne Betts confronts the funk of post-incarceration existence and examines prison not as a static space, but as a force that enacts pressure throughout a person’s life. Challenging the complexities of language, Betts animates what it means to be a “felon.”
What she tells me: prison killed you
my love, killed you so dead that you’re not
here now, you’re never here, you’re always.
The late, great Maya Angelou authored a half-dozen bestselling autobiographies, most notably the heartbreaking account of her childhood, I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS. For a shorter introduction to her work, I recommend MOM & ME & MOM; in it, she revisits her life story as framed by her relationship with her mother, who abandoned her at the age of three and did not reenter her life until ten years later. At just four hours, MOM & ME & MOM offers an all-encompassing overview of how this tumultuous, complicated relationship shaped Angelou into the phenomenal woman she became. Angelou has one of the smoothest voices of any audiobook narrator, and her deep connection to the material offers an added layer of emotion for listeners.
Read by Maya Angelou
FOR EVERY ONE is a letter for dreamers of any age. Reynolds talks about the staggering uncertainty of following your dreams, and tells the listener that it’s crucial to follow them anyway, because “our dreams could be as far away as forever or as close as lunchtime.” I listened to this audiobook just a few days before I interviewed for my current job at Simon & Schuster Audio—naturally, its themes resonated with me in the coming weeks as I began working full-time in my dream industry. FOR EVERY ONE is a beautiful, bite-sized audiobook that I recommend revisiting whenever you’re feeling stuck or need a little encouragement. Stay tuned after the credits for extra commentary from the author that I find nearly as inspiring as the letter itself.
Read by Jason Reynolds
SELECTED AS ONE OF THE YOUNG ADULT LIBRARY SERVICES ASSOCIATION’S 2019 AMAZING AUDIOBOOKS FOR YOUNG ADULTS!
Originally performed at the Kennedy Center for the unveiling of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, and later as a tribute to Walter Dean Myers, this stirring and inspirational poem is New York Times bestselling author and National Book Award finalist Jason Reynolds’s rallying cry to the dreamers of the world.
For Every One is just that: for every one. For every one person. For every one dream. But especially for every one kid. The kids who dream of being better than they are. Kids who dream of doing more than they almost dare to dream. Kids who are like Jason Reynolds, a self-professed dreamer. Jason does not claim to know how to make dreams come true; he has, in fact, been fighting on the front line of his own battle to make his own dreams a reality. He expected to make it when he was sixteen. Then eighteen. Then twenty-five. Now, some of those expectations have been realized. But others, the most important ones, lay ahead, and a lot of them involve kids, how to inspire them. All the kids who are scared to dream, or don’t know how to dream, or don’t dare to dream because they’ve NEVER seen a dream come true. Jason wants kids to know that dreams take time. They involve countless struggles. But no matter how many times a dreamer gets beat down, the drive and the passion and the hope never fully extinguish—because just having the dream is the start you need, or you won’t get anywhere anyway, and that is when you have to take a leap of faith.
A pitch perfect graduation, baby, or love my kid gift.