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Daunted by 500 pages of Hemingway? Why audiobooks fit perfectly into our frantic digital lives

Gripping: Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman in the 1943 film For Whom the Bell Tolls
Gripping: Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman in the 1943 film For Whom the Bell Tolls

It was For Whom the Bell Tolls that got me into audiobooks. Like generations of parents, I had long been using them to assist in the survival of long car journeys with infants. Any number of books had distracted my daughter from being sick down the back seat of the car.

But faced with 500 pages of dense Ernest Hemingway to get through, and only an approximation of a work-life balance, I decided it was time to start listening to audiobooks aimed at grown-ups – an idea now apparently embraced by millions, as figures came through yesterday that the audiobook market has soared by a staggering 43 per cent year on year, to £69 million.

For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway’s great novel about the Spanish Civil War, does not make an ideal audiobook. It is long and complex. The version I downloaded wasn’t even particularly well read, so I won’t name the reader. But it was good enough, especially considering the material is a masterpiece. There was an hour in the car (no infant this time) when I listened to the harrowing scenes as the republicans of a village meted out revenge on the local fascists, chopping them to bits or forcing them to leap off a precipice. It was excruciating. I could feel the sticky heat of the village square. I saw the blood.

Because we read more quickly to ourselves than someone can read out loud to us, the pace with which this episode unfolded gave my mind, as I drove, time to construct in detail the stage set of the torture. If I’d had the book in my hand I probably would have skipped the worst bits, but here there was no escape. It was a fully realised scene that I believe garnered the power Hemingway intended, not only over the rest of the narrative (which never repeats such horror) but over me. It was unforgettable.

Audiobooks can never be the new reading – the excitement of the closing chapters of For Whom, which I read from the physical book, left me breathless – but it’s a different kind of reading, and perhaps even of equal value. Their current triumph is to be celebrated. They slide into our frenetic lives seamlessly. They enliven housework, walks to the Tube. When our long days of digital distraction end with an hour in front of a box set because our minds just can’t focus on long pages of the written word, audiobooks can fit literature back into our lives by nesting it in the nooks and crannies of existence.

If the author him or herself reads the audio version, it creates a startling illusion of intimacy. I cried over the washing up as Michelle Obama told me of the death of her friend from cancer. And laughed out loud on the train as Nicholas Hytner recounted to me his encounters with Harold Pinter. There are the superb readers, whatever the material – the flavour of cynicism somehow innate to every vowel Rory Kinnear utters is perfectly suited to a whole tranche of British literature.

Such readers bring you the texture of language that you worry might be lost by not consuming words from a page – it doesn’t have to be. There are the readers I’ve never heard of who bring lucidity and charm to complex texts – on the Audible app there is a brilliant version of Ali Smith’s multi-stranded Spring by Juliette Burton. And then there is the whole army of wonderful voices who have brought their conjuring tricks to the children’s market: Patrick Stewart, Bernard Cribbins, Gemma Arterton, Miriam Margolyes, to name just a few.

The ubiquity of our consumption of audiobooks has become possible, of course, because smartphones are now our fifth limb. There is an irony to the fact that we can lay the blame for our shattered concentration spans on these little oblongs, but also that – via audiobook apps – they can return to us a quality of absorption in storytelling – and yes, the ability to paint pictures with our imaginations – that we associate with childhood and the prelapsarian, pre-digital age.

10 brilliant audiobooks, chosen by The Telegraph's Tristram Fane Saunders

Lolita

By Vladimir Nabokov, read by Jeremy Irons

Irons’s 1997 film of the queasy child-abduction classic may have flopped, but his audiobook performance is an unctuous marvel, relishing each purple flourish of antihero Humbert Humbert’s prose.

I, Partridge

By Alan Partridge, read by Steve Coogan

A lifetime of comic prowess is distilled into Coogan’s reading of his Little England alter-ego’s fictional autobiography. A-ha!

Spring

By Ali Smith, read by Juliette Burton

Burton brings stunning variety of pace and tone to Smith’s multilayered rumination on loss, separation and the migrant’s plight, with an extraordinary evocation of the voice of the 12-year-old protagonist at its heart.

Winnie-the-Pooh

By AA Milne, read by Alan Bennett

Britain’s cuddliest theatrical treasure, Bennett is practically a human Winnie-the-Pooh already. He’s the perfect guide to the Hundred Acre Wood visited by the book’s characters.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

By JK Rowling, read by Stephen Fry

Millennial insomniacs the world over have been lulled to sleep by Fry’s dulcet narration of the boy wizard’s first adventure. The Little Prince By Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, read by Richard Burton  (and others) Burton’s subtle reading of the bittersweet French children’s classic, with a trippy score from synth pioneer Mort Garson, is right up there with Under Milk Wood.

Portuguese Irregular Verbs

By Alexander McCall-Smith, read by Hugh Laurie

Though less popular than his No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels, McCall-Smith’s trilogy about a hapless German philologist is howlingly funny: imagine a Teutonic Jeeves & Wooster. Laurie’s faultless comic timing makes this first instalment a hoot from start to finish.

Last Chance to See 

By Douglas Adams and  Mark Carwardine, read by Douglas Adams

The soft-voiced Hitchhiker’s author thought this wry, poignant travelogue his finest work. Seeking nearly-extinct animals with naturalist Carwardine, he’s half-Attenborough, half-Bill Bryson.

Lincoln in the Bardo

By George Saunders, read by George Saunders (and others)

An audiobook just as inventive as the Booker-winning novel. Saunders’s tale of the US president grieving for his son in a ghost-filled graveyard has  166 characters, played here by the author, his wife, children and friends, plus actors including Julianne Moore, Susan Sarandon, Don Cheadle and Megan Mullally.

The Turn of the Screw

By Henry James, read by Emma Thompson

Thompson gives a shiver-inducing reading of the classic ghost story about a governess whose young wards might be possessed, finding clarity and passion in James’s occasionally knotted, chilly prose.

Are you a fan of audiobooks? Or do you prefer to read a physical book? We want to hear from you in the comments section below.