How to listen to the best audiobooks, for free
Listen up: consume great literature on the go with our guide to getting into audiobooks. From how to download them for free, to the best titles and most inspiring narrators
Thanks to a new generation of audiobook apps and an influx of top actors reading into the mic, it's easier than ever to consume literature when you're on the move.
A good audiobook can be the distraction you need to run a mile further in marathon training, or entertainment during long car journeys. It makes reading in the bath so much simpler (so long, soggy paperbacks) and offers a more intellectually-stimulating soundtrack to your sunbathing.
In our experience plugged-in teens are more amenable to a book if it comes through a pair of headphones, while even the tiniest bookworms can enjoy animated story-telling without yet more screen time. Plus, whatever your age, nothing induces a deep, childlike sleep like closing your eyes and drifting off while someone reads a story aloud.
Where to get audiobooks online
Audiobooks are expensive. Especially considering they can’t be shared and passed on to friends like a well-thumbed hardback. Here’s how to find cheap (or free!) audiobooks.
Download free audiobooks from the library
In an age of discount books and next day delivery, it’s easy to overlook the local library. But did you know that you can also borrow digitally? The RB digital app is a gateway to thousands of e-books, magazines and audiobooks. There’s no adhering to opening hours, lugging around books or racking up late fines, and there’s a huge selection of unabridged audiobooks.
First you need to be library member (we are pleased to report it is quick and simple to join, and you can find your local here). Then use your library card number to register online at RB digital, before downloading the app to browse and borrow for free.
From best-sellers and new releases, to classics and kids’ books, the selection is vast. Take your pick – or reserve any titles that are currently out on loan – and download so you can listen anywhere. After 21 days your downloaded audiobooks will expire, so be ready to click 'borrow' again if you haven’t finished listening.
Though it’s a fairly basic app, we love the Sleep Timer and Bookmark functions, which mean you can be lulled to sleep without leaving the audio playing all night or losing your place in the narrative.
Amazon’s audiobook subscription service costs £7.99 a month and gives you one free audiobook of your choice every month, plus discounts on any additional titles you’d like to purchase. We like how you can sample a chapter before deciding and even swap your free credit book if you are not enjoying it.
You can also use the app without membership by purchasing full price audiobooks and downloading them into your Audible library on a pay as you go basis. But be warned that popular titles tend to cost between £17-£30 without the membership discount.
As you’d expect from the tech giant, it has monopolised the audiobook market with slick app that syncs with your Amazon account and just about any and every device, from Bluetooth speakers to smart watches. It also commissions its own recordings, so a few of the celebrity-read titles are available exclusively on Audible.
Unlike the free library app, Audible means you own your audiobooks and can keep them in your digital bookshelf. So it’s good for the repeat listeners who like to go back to the same stories again and again.
The best audiobooks
Some stories translate better into spoken word than others, but there’s a time, place and taste for all kinds of audiobooks. And the talents of a particular reader can make the audiobook an experience in its own right, rather than just a means of getting through a story while multi-tasking. From the movie stars vivifying classic novels to the authors reading their own work, these are our favourite audiobooks that really come to life when you listen.
The best audiobooks read by famous actors
Joanna Lumley's reading of Jane Austen's novels is glorious, with every clipped retort timed to comic perfection and delivered with rich, rounded plumminess. There's also a delightful version of Emma read by Emma Thompson and Joanne Froggatt.
Stephen Fry’s narration of the Harry Potter series is marvellous: he fully commits to voicing the different characters and brings so much energy to the wizarding duels.
Even if you've read Nora Ephron's Heartburn countless times (if you haven't, you should), it's worth downloading the audiobook to listen to Meryl Streep bring heart and soul to the razor sharp revenge rom-com.
Nicole Kidman, who played Virginia Woolf on screen in The Hours, gives an emotive reading of To The Lighthouse.
Relive the magic of Call Me By Your Name by experiencing the book version read aloud by Armie Hammer, who plays Oliver in the in the 2017 film.
Kate Winslet reading Roald Dahl's Matilda sets the bar for bedtime stories pretty high. And David Tennant's lively narration of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is fab for family car trips.
Breathe new life into beloved modern classics or fill gaps in your reading with F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby read by Jake Gyllenhaal, or Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar read by his sister Maggie Gyllenhaal
Reese Witherspoon's soft southern drawl sets the scene in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird prequel, Go Set A Watchman.
Ever the English gent, Colin Firth brings nuance and understated emotion to Graham Greene's short, sweet classic The End of the Affair.
Audiobooks read by the author
Michelle Obama is an exceptionally accomplished public speaker, so it's especially powerful to hear her talk so openly about the experiences that shaped her, – from race and love to IVF and motherhood – in the audiobook of her memoir Becoming.
Neil Gaiman's strange modern fairytale Stardust is even more enchanting read by Gaiman himself.
The candid, confessional humour in Dolly Alderton's memoir Everything I Know About Love takes on a new dimension when she reads it aloud, becoming more like a (one-way) conversation with a close friend.
David Sedaris's narration emphasises the wit and sardonic humour of his essay collection When You Are Engulfed in Flames.
Patti Smith shares her experiences in New York and on the road in M Train, which feels all the more personal in Smith's own voice.
Rachel Kushner narrates her Booker-nominated exploration of life inside a women's prison, with music from Kim Gordon adding extra atmposhere.