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Narrating Nonfiction — A Balancing Act

We continue to be fascinated by the many ways that audio productions can deliver an author’s message or story. Almost all the nonfiction titles we hear also appear in print, and there’s no denying that words on a page can evoke strong emotions and associations. But when the human voice becomes the medium of expression, something more comes into the learning experience: Writing takes on additional color from the vocal sound, attitudes, and personality conveyed by the narrator.

LISTEN and ENDEMIC are two audiobooks with contrasting missions—one being a potpourri of wildly original ideas about music and the other a science-based manual on how to handle the next pandemic. But the challenge for the narrators is the same—to express the author’s ideas with fidelity, to sound pleasing, and to create a vocal personality that fits the author and message. With LISTEN, British actor Nathaniel Priestley narrates Michel Faber’s snarky opinions in the tone of an educated smart aleck but adds enough charm to keep the mood friendly. With Monica Gandhi's ENDEMIC, an overly friendly performance would not fit the gravitas of the topic or the stature of the author, a physician and public health researcher. Narrator Gabra Zackman’s main task is to be informative and persuasive, which she accomplishes by combining her natural vocal warmth with steady confidence in the author’s ideas. Her virtuoso performance will open minds about a controversial topic. Read on for more recommendations for personal development audiobooks that succeed in this balancing act.


by Michel Faber, read by Nathaniel Priestley
Harlequin Audio
AudioFile Earphones Award

Nathaniel Priestley's creative pitch patterns and British enunciation give wonderful vitality to Michel Faber's colorful prose and expansive thinking about music. There is a steady flow of bold comments on such topics as pop bands, composers, and sound equipment, as well as broader subjects like British imperialism and global finance. This top-shelf writing could not have found a better narrator than Nathaniel Priestley, who consistently finds the exact vocal tone to express one hundred percent of this author's originality.

by Monica Gandhi, read by Gabra Zackman
Mayo Clinic Press
AudioFile Earphones Award

In this manual on pandemic management, a professor of infectious diseases describes how containment methods can be used more sparingly. Gabra Zackman's performance sounds warm, authoritative, and quietly persuasive. The clarity of this scientific writing is helped by her pure timbre, natural-sounding diction, and skill at using strategic pauses to emphasize important phrases. 

How Work Works

ARETÉ: Activate Your Heroic Potential
by Brian Johnson, Phil Stutz [Fore.], read by Brian Johnson
Blackstone Audio

The author of this expansive audiobook is the founder of a personal growth platform that integrates a broad array of wisdom about developing one's potential.  The author performs with energy that infuses his ideas with passion from start to finish. From Aristotle to modern psychologists, he's curated the best advice from anyone who's had anything to say about living in accordance with our highest ideals. 

HOW WORK WORKS: The Subtle Science of Getting Ahead Without Losing Yourself
by Michelle P. King, read by Siho Ellsmore
Harper Audio

In this well-informed collection of research and practical advice, an expert on organizational life explains how to navigate the informal systems in any workplace. Actor and filmmaker Siho Ellsmore narrates with authority that fits the depth and credibility of this writing. When notes of passion are heard in her delivery, they sound authentic and always proportional to the varying intensity of the author's points. 

How To Know A Person
Hidden Potential

HOW TO KNOW A PERSON: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen
by David Brooks, read by David Brooks
Random House Audio

New York Times opinion columnist David Brooks offers another work that promotes the principles, character traits, and social habits that can make life more fulfilling. He has a lovely baritone voice, and his speaking style is naturally articulate, relaxed, and conversational—perfect for delivering this inspiring and timely lesson. This fast-moving audio will encourage listeners to share more of themselves in their relationships and develop deeper curiosity about the inner lives and circumstances of others. 

HIDDEN POTENTIAL: The Science of Achieving Greater Things
by Adam Grant, read by Adam Grant et al.  
Penguin Audio

The Wharton psychology professor narrates the bulk of this creative production with persuasive enthusiasm, while a collection of non-voice pros describe their often unlikely paths to success. Wanting to inspire people to greater achievements, Grant explains that initiative, willingness to collaborate, discipline, and determination are better predictors of success than intelligence or past performance. 


AudioFile Magazine is your #1 source for audiobook reviews. 

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