I’m a big audiobook listener and am lucky to have family members who I can recommend books to and who can recommend audiobooks to me.
While a good book recommendation can be priceless, a good book doesn’t necessarily make a good audiobook. A bad narrator can ruin the whole audiobook experience and make you run for your Kindle, while a successful one can make you feel like you’ve just shared time with a good friend in the room. Each of the books mentioned on this list are as enjoyable to listen to as they are to read in book format.
Now, in 2020, looking back on the books I was listening to in 2019, it’s clear how preoccupied I was with the end of the 1960s and how curious I became about transitions in culture and technology as we began a new decade ourselves.
I hope you enjoy the recommendations and find a book or two to listen to.
The top audiobooks I listened to in 2019, in no particular order:
1. Janis: Her Life and Music
A heartbreaking story of talent gone too soon, Janis is a tenderly told cautionary tale filled with stories of wild excess and quiet introspection. Janis Joplin was a prolific and thoughtful letter writer, and the book uses the letters she wrote to her family as the main narrative element. It is expertly narrated by Nina Arianda, who does a yeoman’s job of alternating between narrating Janis’s letters in her voice and speaking as the narrator of her life story.
While Janis’s journey had some dark corners, I found the book to be delightful when it wasn’t heart-wrenching, and I reveled in details like hearing how Janis wore a shearling coat in college at the University of Texas inside out with the wool on the outside of the jacket. I loved this image of Janis in her inside-out coat, telling anyone in Austin who would listen that this is how she liked to wear it, thank you very much.
As a big fan of the ‘60s poster movement and the Big Five poster artists, I also loved hearing stories about Stanley Mouse’s involvement with Janis, as his art studio was where Big Brother practiced and where they first auditioned Janis. According to Janis’s letters, Mouse even printed buttons with her face on them to distribute throughout the San Francisco scene, so powerful was her magnetism and star power.
This book is a treasure for fans of her music, which becomes more powerful to me as each year goes by.
Janis: Her Life and Music by Holly George-Warren. Narrated by Nina Arianda.
2. Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions
The first book that I've come across that helped lift the cover on what algorithms are, how computers think, and how they operate. I think about this book all the time now, especially when doing the dishes. If only someone could clear this cache!
Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths. Narrated by Brian Christian.
3. One Giant Leap: The Untold Story of How We Flew to the Moon
Okay, I admit it. I like learning about space. I grew up looking at the stars in Vermont and can’t help but wonder what this cosmic fabric we see spread over us is all about. With 2019 being the 50th anniversary of humankind’s landing on the moon, I found myself in hog heaven last summer, as it seemed like every day there was another excellent documentary about the moon landing or the Woodstock music festival coming out. Sigh, what a summer!
My biggest takeaway from the book was that the moon race was responsible for the birth of digital technology as we know it today and instrumental for in ushering in our modern digital age. While stories like the one about how the U.S. flag that went to the moon was purchased at a regular department store are amusing and make the moon landing seem quaint, the concept that there’s more computing power in our modern appliances than in the computer that flew us to the moon is misleading and undermines the skilled engineering feat that the original NASA engineers accomplished with such limited computer processing memory available. Please keep that in mind the next time you want to try and use your microwave oven to fly to the moon.
One Giant Leap: The Untold Story of How We Flew to the Moon by Charles Fishman. Narrated by Fred Sanders.
4. Smash! Green Day, The Offspring, Bad Religion, NOFX, and the '90s Punk Explosion
1995 was a prime year for my brother and I to be exposed to new things that you couldn’t get in Vermont, having moved across the country to California that Summer. Things like for instance, cable television and MTV. Green Day and The Offspring ruled the MTV airwaves that year and were an inescapable part of the soundtrack that I associate with my “cultural exchange year abroad” in Ukiah, California.
This book was a landslide of fun memories for anyone who lived through the ‘90s or is interested in the music from that time period. While I have fond memories of the music from this period in my life, I’ve always associated pop punk with MTV, ”selling out,” and the second wave of alternative bands that achieved commercial success in the wake of Nirvana’s popularity, not with the moxie of the independent labels who dared to take a chance on the bands that they believed in.
Fun fact: did you know that Smash by The Offspring is the most successful independent album of all time? Who knew? As someone starting their own independent business, I have to hand it to the people at these indie labels for believing in what they were doing before anyone else did.
Cue the “whoa, yeah, yeah” chorus of “Self-Esteem” by The Offspring to play now in your head for the next two hours.
Smash! Green Day, The Offspring, Bad Religion, NOFX, and the '90s Punk Explosion by Ian Winwood. Narrated by Kevin T. Collins.
5. Moneyland: The Inside Story of the Crooks and Kleptocrats Who Rule the World
The only "money" book to make the 2019 list, this book exposes the widespread adaption of international money laundering practices and explains why it is so hard to prosecute people who are breaking the law by existing “outside of the law.”
This book will drive the "not fair" and "that's not right" part of your brain crazy and is a real eye-opener into the sort of international corruption the world faces now. It also explains who is buying all these unoccupied high-rise apartments in places like New York City and Miami.
It’s astounding for me to think about how much money has escaped taxation by use of these internationally unregulated tax havens and how much public good the tax revenues could do if these crooks had to play by the same rules as you and me.
Moneyland: The Inside Story of the Crooks and Kleptocrats Who Rule the World by Oliver Bullough. Narrated by Oliver Bullough.