Ben Galbraith
Jul 22 · 8 min read

Since I signed up in 2003, Audible.com has been in my short list of top Internet services. In the early days, it was a chore to play Audible files in the car or sync them with a portable MP3 player. Nowadays, with a smartphone and AirPods, I can easily sneak a listen anytime I have dead time between focus tasks, such as walking in-between buildings, taking out the trash, or brushing my teeth.

These small moments add up, and have reopened my life to the magic of books. I regularly promote Audible to others, and to get them hooked, I share a list of my favorite listens. As I set about emailing the list to another friend this weekend, I thought it’d be fun to share it publicly.

I’d love to hear what you think about any of these, and to hear about your favorite listens, too!

All-Time Favorites Across Genres

  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy “Trilogy”, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, and the Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, all narrated by the man himself, Douglas Adams. Listening to these books with the author’s own voice is a special treat; I prefer his characterizations to those of the BBC cast. I really miss Douglas Adams. (While writing this up, I just noticed that several of the Douglas Adams narrations are no longer available for purchase — boo!)
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and of course the rest of the series, narrated by the amazing Jim Dale. I never did finish the books—I lost interest by the pen-ultimate volume—but if you’re a fan, Jim makes these audiobooks come alive.
  • Unlike Harry Potter, I’ve finished every book in J. K. Rowling’s Cormoran Strike crime novels, which she wrote under the pen name of “Robert Galbraith” (nice surname!). Robert Glenister’s narration absolutely makes these books. His characterization of Strike is dead-on and so much more satisfying than the BBC version.
  • The Dangerous Animals Club and My Adventures with God, written and narrated by Stephen Tobolowsky. You’ve seen this character actor’s performances, but you may not have known that he’s built quite a following around his writings and recordings. There are so many laugh-out-loud scenes throughout these books, and a few moments of poignancy, too.
  • Masters of Doom, the history of Carmack and Romero. A riveting and brilliantly-narrated chronicle of these two seminal figures in the video game culture of my youth. (There’s a bit of a sequel in the much-less-great Prepare to Meet Thy Doom.)
  • A Moveable Feast, one of several great Hemingway performances on Audible. They’re all good, but this is perhaps my favorite; or, maybe For Whom the Bell Tolls, narrated by Campbell Scott, has that distinction. Hmm. A good excuse to listen again…
  • Michael Lewis has several great audiobooks. The Big Short, covering the real estate meltdown of ~2008, is my favorite. Two other good ones: Flash Boys, which delves into modern Wall Street practices like flash trading and dark pools, and the Undoing Project’s biographical narrative covering two of the pioneers of cognitive psychology.
  • Forgive me for including a second tech history book, but Steven Levy’s Hackers is superb. If you haven’t already read this classic history of programmer culture, you’re in for a treat. And even if you have, this edition includes a bit of an update on the characters so lovingly covered decades ago.

History

  • Charlie Wilson’s War covers key events leading up to 9/11 by following the antics of the charismatic Congressman Charlie Wilson. Sex, war, politics… what else could you want?
  • The Six Wives of Henry VIII uses that subject as an excuse to educate readers on a fascinating period of European history.
  • Bill Bryson has a few wide-ranging history treatments; they don’t go deep, but they’re consistently interesting. A Short History of Nearly Everything and At Home are my favorites. Both books shed so much light on our modern way of life.
  • Shadow Divers. This book about deep-sea divers solving some leftover WW2-era mysteries is a really entertaining read, thanks to its great characters.
  • There are many great Walter Isaacson biographies on Audible; Einstein is probably my favorite.
  • Jerusalem delivers a deeply fascinating ~6,000 year history of the city; it was 25 hours but full of compelling scenes like the grim Roman invasion, and cynical Catholic priests performing optical illusions to fool pilgrims into thinking they’re seeing miracles.
  • I can’t believe I’m recommending all 66 hours of The Power Broker to you, but it’s great! Robert Caro spent seven years exhaustively researching Robert Moses, the most prodigious builder in the history of the world (by a significant margin), and the result is a compelling narrative that holds your attention. Check out Caro’s self-narrated autobiographical sketch for a sampler.
  • How can you not be fascinated by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s life story? The arc of this poor, ignorant backwoods peasant and his climb to world bodybuilding champion, top Hollywood actor, accomplished businessman, and top politician is impressive, made poignant by the dissolution of his marital relationship along the way. Arnold narrates the book—but only the first and last chapters.

Author-Narrated Non-Fiction

And speaking of author narration, there’s a whole bunch of audiobooks read by celebrity authors, and I’ve enjoyed many of these.

  • Jerry Weintraub’s When I Stop Talking, You’ll Know I’m Dead. I bought this on a lark but really enjoyed it. Jerry’s a true hustler and it’s interesting to hear about the early phase of his career, like landing a gig as promoter for The King, as well as his work with Old Blue-Eyes.
  • Colin Powell’s two books have plenty of insights on success, despite (or rather, because of) the humility and straightforwardness of the author. And remember, don’t be a “busy bastard.”
  • Billy Crystal’s Still Foolin’ ’Em, Alec Baldwin’s Nevertheless, and Bryan Cranston’s A Life in Parts are typical show-business bios, if that’s your thing.
  • Bill Clinton’s Back to Work will inspire you if you think government has any role whatsoever in civic life.
  • And, if it’s not too painful: Hillary Clinton’s What Happened, James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty, and Andrew McCabe’s The Threat are each delightful to hear in the voices of their authors.

Religion

I’m tempted to write a lengthy review of each of these; for now, suffice it to say each changed my outlook—especially Going Clear.

  • Going Clear, Lawrence Wright’s landmark exposé of Scientology. You’ll learn about a few scurrilous rascals, but the questions it raises about religion, cults, and human nature are transcendent.
  • Tara Westover’s Educated is a good companion to Going Clear, despite its different setting and religion.
  • How to Change Your Mind isn’t about religion per-se, but religious thinking forms much of the framing for Michael Pollan’s exploration into psychedelic experiences, and it illuminates how readily our minds create profound experiences based on our thoughts and surroundings.

Tech Culture

Growing up in Silicon Valley, my life story intersects with tech on many levels, so I feel a special connection to any book that covers my industry.

  • Even if you think you know Elizabeth Holmes’s story, I guarantee Bad Blood will shock you.
  • Quite dated now, I still find The Second Coming of Steve Jobs a fun listen based on his pre-iPhone days.
  • Want to learn just how stifling monopolies and closed ecosystems can be for innovation? Check out the Master Switch, and ponder along with me what the world would have been like if HDTV, cell phones, and the Internet came along 25–50 years earlier. (This isn’t entirely theoretical; color HDTV was under development in the early 20th century before it was blocked, as was fundamental research in other key areas.)
  • Two great cautionary tales of failed tech giants can be found in Losing the Signal (about RIM) and Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo!
  • I read How Google Works and Laszlo Bock’s Work Rules! before starting at Google nearly four years ago. I thought they’d prepare me for the culture, but, let’s just say I found them to be as much aspirational as canonical in their descriptions of Google.
  • The New New Thing is a journey way back (in Internet years) to the Netscape era; it’s a fun ride to take.
  • The Everything Store is (for now) the definitive biography of Jeff Bezos and Amazon, though the story has moved on quite a bit since this book’s publication.
  • Ed Catmull’s history of Pixar is a bit of a mashup: part autobiography, part management science, and part Steve Jobs biography. Wonderful book.

Science and Productivity

  • You’ve probably encountered Dan Ariely’s TED talks; his audiobooks are more of the same, in a good way. I would have preferred to have Dan narrate them himself, but Simon Jones is a great alternative.
  • The Signal and the Noise is Nate Silver’s modern classic on data and statistics.
  • The Checklist Manifesto is amazing. Who knew the humble checklist was so revolutionary? There’s this particularly compelling insight describing how these intensely complex modern machines—jumbo jets—are beyond the capabilities of humans to fly safely, unless you supplement pilots with a few simple checklists, in which case we operate them over and over again with near-perfect safety records. Powerful stuff.
  • Algorithms to Live By doesn’t set out to show the convergence of biology with computer science; it’s really just trying to show how we can optimize our lives with the same algorithms that programmers use. But by the end of it, you’ll see just how similar machines built on cellular and binary substrates really are.
  • And speaking of biology, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s books on genetics are fantastic. Start with The Gene, as the Emperor of All Maladies (a book on cancer) is a sequel of sorts.
  • I’m not sure how well written The Order of Time is because I was too distracted by Benedict Cumberbatch’s sublime narration. TIME rated it a top-ten book of 2018, so I suppose it’s not just the narration.
  • Sapiens has become a bit of a tech cliché, but hey, some people still haven’t heard of it. It’s wonderful.

Fiction

  • Dune: an audiobook production worthy of one of the best sci-fi novels ever.
  • The Martian: a great novel with great narration. (Rosario Dawson narrates the author’s somewhat mediocre second book; sorry Andy.)
  • Barney’s Version. By the end of Barney’s story, I was in tears; an epic tale of an ordinary life. I can’t really explain why I loved it so much. I’d never read a novel set in Quebec before, which was also fun.
  • At 46 hours, the Count of Monte Cristo is quite an investment! It holds up pretty well after all these years with this excellent narration.
  • I’m not sure that Cloud Atlas was a good movie, but the audiobook is quite a tale. Very different ending than the movie, though.
  • Sometimes you need a light-weight yarn to cleanse the system; Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr series about a literary cat burglar delivers, thanks to Richard Ferrone’s narration. Each novel is wonderfully formulaic.
  • Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon series benefits from George Guidall’s superb narration in the later novels, but you’ll suffer from changing narrators in the first few books. (Are there really 19 of these things? Goodness.) Despite that, I love this series about an Israeli special forces assassin attempting to retire to a quiet career restoring art.
  • The thriller Dark Matter starts out with a compelling hook and stays intense. I found the author’s other books quite gruesome, however.
  • Six Wakes is one of a raft of novels exploring the implications of cloning; the Bobiverse series is another. The former is thought-provoking and well-reasoned in how it thinks society might be impacted by hacking our biology; the latter is more of a light-hearted romp.
  • Like time loop stories? You’ll enjoy The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August.
  • I learned a good deal about 20th century Russian history from the sweet fictional tale of A Gentleman in Moscow.
  • And, to wrap up, two dramatic productions: Billy Crudup performing his one-man play Harry Clarke, and a full-cast recording of Billy Crystal’s Have a Nice Day, starring Kevin Kline, Annette Bening, Dick Cavett (!), and… Billy Crystal.

Ben Galbraith

Written by

Tech entrepreneur, executive, and investor; octo-dad; former Googler, now VP Product at Segment.com

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