A History Professor’s Guide to Audible.com

January 2013

Of all the new devices and products that make up the digital humanities, one of my favorites is one that gets relatively little attention, at least in the blogs and columns I read: the digital audiobook.

Though recorded books have been around since the 1930s, the advent of the internet and the MP3 player have made them much easier to get. I typically spend at least an hour or two each day listening while I walk, drive, cook, clean, or do other tasks that make actual reading impossible. Though I sometimes get CDs from the library, usually I download books from Audible.com.

Finding books I want to listen to can be a challenge, especially when I want something work-related. Like many a shopping-mall bookstore, Audible’s history section is heavy on military histories, great-man biographies, and great-man military histories. Moreover, the bulk of these seem to be written not by professional historians, but by journalists, pundits, and former Navy SEALs.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The past is a marvelous commons, open to everyone willing to explore it. I have learned a good deal from military histories and works by journalists, even novelists, some of them listed below. Moreover, some fine but primarily analytic books by professional historians don’t work well as audiobooks. For example, I know I listened to David Brion Davis’s Inhuman Bondage some years back, but it left no impression on me, the way I’m sure it would have had I read it on paper, pen in hand.

On the other hand, many of my professional colleagues write wonderful narratives that make great listening, and increasing numbers of them are being recorded as audiobooks. I love the combination of scholarly rigor and literary craft, yet can be frustratingly difficult to find these works amid Audible’s broad category of history. To help fellow listeners, I offer a preliminary works that I have found helpful in thinking about my own research and teaching.

I should note that I have listed only books which Audlble offers as unabridged recordings. This means leaving out such fine works as Simon Schama’s Rough Crossings (available only abridged) and James Hansen’s First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, available unabridged on CD but only abridged on Audible.com


All of the books so far released in the Oxford History of the United States have unabridged audio editions, ranging from 17 hrs and 11 mins for James T. Patterson’s Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore to 40 hrs and 44 mins. for George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: US Foreign Relations Since 1776.

If the Patterson is too short, an alternative survey of the same period is Sean Wilentz, The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008, Narrated By Dick Hill, at 22 hrs and 35 mins.

I haven’t listened to all of these, but I did enjoy Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815 – 1848, which took a mere 32 hrs and 50 mins.

Early America

1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created
By Charles C. Mann
Narrated By Robertson Dean
Length: 17 hrs and 51 mins
Release Date: 08-09-11

Unlike Jared Diamond, Mann acknowledges his debt to Alfred Crosby.

Washington’s Crossing
By David Hackett Fischer
Narrated By Nelson Runger
Length: 18 hrs and 13 mins
Release Date: 05-12-04

Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies
By Alan Taylor
Narrated By Andrew Garman
Length: 20 hrs and 41 mins
Release Date: 12-22-10

Both of these use war stories to teach us about the complexities of early American society.

The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family
By Annette Gordon-Reed
Narrated By Karen White
Length: 30 hrs and 40 mins
Release Date: 10-20-08

Here it’s great-man biography–sort of–that serves as the hook to a broader exploration.

The Nineteenth Century

1861: The Civil War Awakening
By Adam Goodheart
Narrated By Jonathan Davis
Length: 18 hrs and 54 mins
Release Date: 04-05-11

Incredibly vivid storytelling, using all five senses.

Mellon: An American Life
By David Cannadine
Narrated By John H. Mayer
Length: 36 hrs and 1 min
Release Date: 10-03-06

Quite relevant as the nation tears itself apart over tax policy.

Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre
By Heather Cox Richardson
Narrated By Jonathan Davis
Length: 14 hrs and 33 mins
Release Date: 09-13-10

Another work in which war helps drive the narrative but does not overwhelm it.

The Twentieth Century

Perhaps because it is my main field, or perhaps because of popular interest, I’ve found on Audible.com more serious histories of the twentieth century–and especially the postwar era–on than other periods.

The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century
By Alan Brinkley
Narrated By Sean Runnette
Length: 21 hrs and 21 mins
Release Date: 06-11-10

When old media were new.

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer
By Kai Bird, Martin J. Sherwin
Narrated By Jeff Cummings
Length: 26 hrs and 30 mins
Release Date: 03-28-07

Co-authored by my colleague, a great look at the debates over Communism in the mid-century.

John W. Dower, Embracing Defeat, Narrated By Edward Lewis, 21 hrs and 39 mins, and Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor / Hiroshima / 9-11 / Iraq, Narrated By Kevin Foley
Length: 17 hrs and 43 mins

Both books offer perspective on recent American occupations, the latter more explicitly.

Polio: An American Story
By David M. Oshinsky
Narrated By Jonathan Hogan
Length: 14 hrs and 37 mins
Release Date: 01-01-07

Ah, I just loved this book. Takes the heroic Salk story and complicates it beautifully. This might be a good place to start for someone looking for a great audiobook written by a history professor.

At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance – A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power
By Danielle L. McGuire
Narrated By Robin Miles
Whispersync for Voice-ready
Length: 10 hrs and 52 mins
Release Date: 11-28-11

An example of the fruits of looking at “the long Civil Rights Movement,” extending from the 1940s into the 1970s.

The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation
By Gene Roberts, Hank Klibanoff
Narrated By Richard Allen
Length: 21 hrs and 37 mins
Release Date: 12-29-07

All those famous photos and bylines, put into context.

Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America
By Rick Perlstein
Narrated By Stephen R. Thorne
Length: 36 hrs and 46 mins
Release Date: 05-22-09

Great explanations of midterm elections, especially 1966.

American Pastoral
By Philip Roth
Narrated By Ron Silver
Length: 15 hrs and 32 mins
Release Date: 05-01-97

Some of the same territory as Nixonland, but with more Jews. I’m generally not a fan of historical fiction, but I’ll make an exception for Roth, perhaps because he prefers reading history to fiction himself.

Steve Jobs
By Walter Isaacson
Narrated By Dylan Baker
Length: 25 hrs and 8 mins

Deserved all the hype it got—the transition from the counterculture to the digital age.

Primary Sources

Finally, I should note that Audible features versions of some of the Big Books that have shaped American history, like The Jungle and The Feminine Mystique, neither of which I had ever read in full before listening to them. For pre-1923 works of this nature, see Librivox.

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