Readers choose books for various reasons: author, genre, reviews or the suggestion of a friend. And yes, we do judge books by their covers. For audiobook listeners, the deciding factor often comes down to the narrator. Back when telephone directories were common, the saying was “I’d listen to this narrator read the phone book.” I myself have many favorites, including such greats as George Guidall, Robin Miles and Suzanne Toren, but if I were forced to listen to a phone book, I’d want it to be voiced by Bronson Pinchot and Juliet Stevenson.
If you’re my age, you’ll recall actor Pinchot from his days of sitcom stardom as the wide-eyed immigrant Balki in “Perfect Strangers,” but several years ago Pinchot’s star rose anew in the field of audiobook narration. The quick-witted Pinchot’s fierce intelligence is on display in his earliest audiobook performances of Chipp Kidd’s whimsical autobiographical satires “The Cheese Monkeys” and “The Learners.” With deft tonal shifts and acrobatic attitudinizing, Pinchot charges in at a pace rather fast for audiobook narration, but perfectly matching Kidd’s hyperkinetic prose. The results are chapters that rival David Sedaris monologues for droll hilarity: biting wit sauced with self-conscious irony, the very voice of Generation X.
That same intelligence lends credibility to the more technical aspects of science fiction, at which Pinchot excels. Narrating “Madness from the Inconstant Moon,” a collection of stories by hard science fiction great Larry Niven, Pinchot renders intelligible even the most abstruse passages on time travel or parallel universes, while keeping relatable human emotions always in play. Sharing the meditative science essays in MIT theoretical physicist Alan Lightman’s “Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine,” Pinchot brings a down-to-earth curiosity to profound questions of science and philosophy, thinking big thoughts aloud in ways that awaken the listener’s sense of wonder. Even more remarkable is his performance of Roberto Trotta’s “The Edge of the Sky,” in which the theoretical cosmologist attempts to explain the universe using only the thousand most common words in the English language. The resulting Hemingway-meets-Einstein tract is a neat feat, and Pinchot’s expressive intonations perfectly accomplish Trotta’s ends, enhancing the simplest prose with suggestive nuance.
While he can do sensitive and subtle, as in his heartfelt reading of Daniel Mendelsohn’s moving father-son memoir “An Odyssey,” Pinchot excels at accents and wild characterizations as well. Just listen to the seething passions and depravities of “Wise Blood,” Flannery O’Connor’s vicious satire of religiosity in the Deep South, and featuring a menagerie of grotesque characters by Pinchot. Like all truly great audiobook narrators, Pinchot fully embodies each book he voices, thoughtfully suiting his delivery to the author and the material. All this conveyed in a resonant baritone that I could listen to for hours, and frequently do.
Stevenson’s distinctive vocal timbre is just one reason why I do a little happy dance every time I hear she has recorded another book. The prolific British actor, perhaps best known to American audiences playing opposite Alan Rickman in the unmissable cult classic romantic comedy “Truly, Madly, Deeply,” has a rich, velvety alto located somewhere between the woodwinds and the cellos. This ravishing voice is backed up with a virtuosic skill set capable of bringing even the most challenging texts to vivid life.
The first book I ever heard Stevenson narrate was George Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” and I can’t imagine a more perfect marriage of brilliant writing and performance. A classically trained stage actor, Stevenson expertly inhabits a wide range of characters across English social classes and every shade of human imperfection and aspiration, anchored by the ardent warmth and keen understanding of heroine Dorothea Brooke. Compare her reading of “Middlemarch” to any other narrator, and you’ll immediately sense just how much specificity and life she brings to texts that can appear confoundingly dense and oblique on the page. Then rush to listen to her equally accomplished reading of Eliot’s “Daniel Deronda,” her many recordings of Jane Austen, the Brontës and Henry James, and perhaps even venture into the forbidding, triple-piled prose of Charlotte Lennox’s “The Female Quixote,” which relates the comic misadventures of the guileless Lady Arabella, so besotted with reading romances that she is quite incapable of dealing with the prosaic realities of the 1750s.
Better yet, fast forward to any of Stevenson’s narrations of Virginia Woolf. Her revelatory, flawless reading of the challenging 1922 novel “Jacob’s Room” reanimates Woolf’s mercurial stream-of-consciousness prose, revealing her genius in ways perhaps lost on the casual reader, but conveyed through Stevenson’s painstakingly realized performance. Fortunate indeed is the contemporary writer who receives the same attention, as in Stevenson’s delightfully varied narration of Imogen Hermes Gowar’s rollicking historical adventure “The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock,” or the more classical strains of J.R. Thorp’s recent debut “Learwife,” a grimly poetic account of tragedy from one of literature’s great omissions, the wife of King Lear, brought to life with majestic emotion and gravity by an actor born to play the role.