Back To School Audiobooks
By Pauline Bird, Emily De Vogele and Cameron Phillips
With the start of school just around the corner, we thought it would be fun to reminisce on our favourite books that we studied in school. While most of these books we read ourselves, listening to the audiobook version has helped to better understand our choices.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, narrated by Jake Gyllenhaal.
I first read The Great Gatsby in my A-Level English Literature class, and I was immediately hooked. I fell into a world of intrigue, mystery, and wealth. My English Literature teacher at college inspired me to lean into my love of literature and history, and I was over the moon that we were able to study something as iconic as The Great Gatsby.
There’s something incredibly interesting to me about the undiscussed feud between old and new money, and the infamous green light. It’s one of those stories that everyone talks about, for good reason. It’s been years since I first read about Gatsby and his life, but I still find myself rereading it every year, finding something new to love about the story. There’s a reason why Fitzgerald’s work is so celebrated, and I think it’s because of his atmospheric writing. His writing feels so immersive that you almost forget you’re reading a story, and not experiencing it yourself.
Jake Gyllenhaal’s narration brings the eccentric Gatsby to life. Gyllenhaal, as a well-known figure himself, knows exactly how to make Jay Gatsby relatable to the listener. Gyllenhaal is also able to bring Nick Carraway to life, something that is infinitely more difficult given the allusive nature of his unreliable narration. Gyllenhaal does something that is incredibly hard for narrators: he makes the listeners feel for these characters as if they were their real life friends, instead of fictional people.
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend, narrated by Nicholas Barnes
I remember The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole being one of the first set texts at my high school and really enjoying it, so I was excited to revisit it as an adult in audiobook format. Although I’m a huge fan of young adult fiction, I found it lacked the same appeal. It felt rather dated to me, with the trivial concerns of the main character as unrelatable. I slowed down the pace of the narration too, as I felt it was whizzing through the quick diary entries so quickly it was difficult to absorb and grasp the passage of time. This improved the pace a little.
I do feel the audiobook may be enjoyed by young adults today. It would prove a good insight into what it was like to be a teenager in the eighties. I think, even today, the concerns and problems that Adrian Mole has will mirror some of those experienced by today’s youth. Narrator Nicholas Barnes adds a certain feel of authenticity to the narrative which really brought the hapless main character to life.
I would recommend this audiobook to young adults, however I did find some of the language used and opinions shared problematic. Rather than censor the books, I would encourage discussion about what is acceptable and what is not and try to develop children and young adults’ critical literacy skills. I hope that a whole new generation will discover and love this book as much as I did on first listening to it.
An Inspector Calls, narrated by Sam Alexander, Toby Jones, David Calder and Morven Christie.
An Inspector Calls is a classic of the English literary and theatrical canon. Written by J.B. Priestley as a play, it tells the story of Inspector Goole, who visits the upper-middle class Birling family in the north midlands concerning the suicide of a young, working class women in the fictional town of Brumley in 1912.
I returned to this book during my studies of 19th century England for my MA Dissertation, and only then did I appreciate what Priestley was trying to say. Priestley's scathing dichotomy of Capitalism vs Socialism in favour of his own socialist views is clear to hear on older listening.
The critique of the so-called “generosity” of the upper-middle class Birling family, and their subsequent exploitation of poor, working class women, is to me an example of Priestley biting back against the myth of Victorian Charity and Disraeli One Nation Toryism. Priestley highlights the very Victorian idea of “deserving poor,” where Victorians often saw themselves as socially superior if they gave to charity. In many people’s views, and mine, this simply isn’t true. Rather, the Victorians viewed their charitable acts not as altruistic, but as acts to impress their supposed moral superiority upon their peers.
In terms of the narration, the full cast is absolutely fantastic, and as the work was originally a play, they go to great efforts to give the book a theatrical performance. I loved the clear passion and enthusiasm they had for the project, which is essential when it comes to adaptations of 20th century English literature.