“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that finding decent free audiobooks is a right faff.” That’s what Jane Austen would make of having to trawl through dozens of identical-looking websites to find a recording that isn’t full of background noise or doesn’t star a narrator with a voice so boring that even they are in danger of falling asleep.
Luckily, we’ve picked out five of the better places to find listening material for your morning commute. Audiobook aficionados will quickly notice that old staples such as Project Gutenberg and Open Culture are missing from the list, as they primarily aggregate audio content from LibriVox. It’s easier to go straight to the source.
As you’d expect, the bulk of the free recordings are of public domain works published before 1923 (think Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, worst-poet-of-all-time William Topaz McGonagall and so on), but there are also a handful of sites, such as The Story Player, that offer more contemporary novels and short stories.
Perhaps the most famous source of public domain audiobooks, LibriVox certainly has its heart in the right place: it’s resolutely non-commercial, the website is ad-free, it has helped generations of lazy school kids and the archive is run entirely by volunteers.
The books are also read by volunteers, which has its pros and cons. The main pro is that when you stumble across a genuinely talented reader, it can bring the novel to life and open literary doors that you would normally run away from Frankenstein-style.
The biggest con, on the other hand, is neatly summarised by the LibriVox website itself: “All you need is your voice, some free software, your computer, and maybe an inexpensive microphone”. Unfortunately, this often leads to bland, insipid vocal performances, as well as some out-there pronunciations of place and character names.
However, there is so much content on LibriVox (at the time of writing 10,904 works had been recorded by 8,142 readers) that it will always be a useful resource for bookworms. Moreover, the organisation has made the process easy by uploading the recordings to iTunes, saving you the hassle of downloading ZIP files directly from the website.
The Story Player is a very different proposition. The brainchild of the company that organises National Short Story Week in the UK, it’s an excellent repository of free-to-download stories by up-and-coming talent.
The quality of the work is also reflected in the sound of the audiobooks, which are read by professional voice actors in studios and each begin with a musical interlude. Intriguingly, there are also a couple of stories read by their authors.
The Story Player’s big downside is that there aren’t many stories on the website (a mere 17 at the time of writing), but it’s worth checking back every month or so for new pieces – especially if they’re as good as prize-winning Çay by Martin Pevsner.
Yes, it really is possible to intersperse a Justin Bieber singalong with extracts of Nineteen Eighty–Four read by David Niven.
Other highlights from the Audiobooks playlist (to find it, simply type “Audiobooks” into the search box) include Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World read by the author, The Importance of Being Earnest starring Sir John Gielgud and Dame Edith Evans and, best of all, the infamous 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds by Orson Welles.
Audible’s 30-day free trial is the worst kept secret in audiobooks – a fact that doesn’t make it any less of a good deal.
To make the most of the vast collection of brand new releases and professional recordings of public domain works, simply sign up at the website (thanks to a $300 million deal back in 2008, you can use your Amazon login details to do this), provide payment details and spend the free “Credit” on any audiobook you want.
You can then listen to your purchase via the Audible app and, if the service wins you over, sign up after the free trial. However, we’d steer clear of listening to I, Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan on the train…
We’ve saved the best for last. Designed by the Educational Technology Clearinghouse to be used in Florida classrooms, Lit2Go is a wide-ranging archive of public domain audiobooks set out in an attractive website with accompanying PDF documents.
Despite ostensibly being a collection of children’s books, Lit2Go will also appeal to adults looking to fill in gaps caused by staring out of the window during English Literature lessons. A particular highlight, or lowlight, is Upton Sinclair’s harrowing novel The Jungle.
To make things straightforward, every work in the database is given a “profile page” with a word count, an original publication date and a short summary of each chapter or part. In addition, once you start listening you can also follow the action via a free, well laid-out PDF ebook.
If we had to nitpick, the fact that you have to download an audiobook chapter by chapter is slightly irritating, but Lit2Go’s other features more than make amends.