As it happens, I think there is such a medium. And it's the audiobook.
Audiobooks have a history that's neither as deep nor as rich as their paper counterparts, and much of that history is tied to a utilitarian purpose: give people a chance to "read" when they can't read. That includes magazines pre-digested for executives to zip through in a limo drive, texts recorded for students who hope to find listening to Silas Marner or Ethan Frome less tedious than turning pages, and works of all sorts dutifully recorded—often by volunteers—for those too visually impaired to deal with paper or screen. All of these purposes are admirable in in some respect, but none of them exactly promise a transcendent experience.
But audiobooks, like any other medium, can rise above the mundane. In the best audiobooks, the reader takes on the role of becoming the narrative voice. Done well, this actually lifts the book; lightens the task on the listener; preserves the collaboration with the author while adding a third party who serves to brighten colors and deepen emotions. I'm going to make a statement here that many will have a hard time accepting: the best audiobooks are better than the paper versions of the same work.
This shouldn't have surprised me. For 25 years now, I've been lucky enough to belong to a writers group that includes fantasy authors Laurell Hamilton, Sharon Shinn, Deborah Millitello, and Marella Sands, along with mystery authors Tom Drennan and Rhett McPherson. Back at the beginning of time, when we were first working out the rules of the group, we allowed the person who was being critiqued to read aloud from the work. We soon stopped that. Why? Because we quickly recognized that reading the work aloud offered the chance to add emphasis and nuance that might not be picked up when the cold paper sheets crossed some editor's desk. Reading the book aloud had an edge over just the text. The best audiobooks preserve that edge.
I've also become a believer that the best audiobooks offer an incredible showcase for voice actors. In a non-abridged audiobook (the only kind I listen too) the reader is more constrained than in the most rigorous revival of Shakespeare. They must follow, word for word, everything the author has set out for them. Even so, the best readers manage to own the book, creating characters, providing tone, and illuminating every murky motivation. I know that some lists of the best audioworks have concentrated on those that incorporated effects and music, multiple voices and odd formats. To this I say... bah humbug. I may no longer be a paper book snob, but I'm a big believer in the purity of the author-reader relationship. Give me one reader, one voice, tracing a path that the author laid down.
Here are some of the best books I listened to in 2013. Note that several of them were not written last year. For some of them 2013 was not even my first listen. Some of them were good enough that 2013 was just when I decided to listen to them again.
written by Kate Atkinson
read by Fenella Woolgar
Atkinson's baroque, recursive biography of a woman who lives through endless variations on the same life is enchanting on paper, but made even more so by Woolgar's gentle but consistent characterization. Woolgar, who American audiences probably know best from small television roles, including that of playing Agatha Christie on an episode of Dr. Who, manages to inhabit every character of the novel, infusing each of them with a distinctive personality without turning them into caricatures. It's just a marvelous bit of voice acting, and if there are awards for such (surely there are) I hope Ms. Woolgar gets the attention this effort deserves. I've written a full review of this book which you can read here.
written by Gillian Flynn
read by Ann Marie Lee
I'm not going to lie about this: this first-person narrative of reporter Camille Preaker's return to her home town can be hard to take in any medium. Camille is so ... broken, and this fresh encounter with her past tears open every one of her many wounds and rubs in salt by the handful. Long before she solves the mystery of who is killing children, you wish she would simply run back to Chicago. In the audio version, Ann Marie Lee adds a wistful warmth to Camille's voice along with understated cynicism. There's a great sense of her regret, of wishing things could be otherwise, while she walks step by step onto the emotional killing floor. Both her vulnerability and her self-destructive nature come through in every tone. So far as I can tell, Ann Marie Lee as an actor has done mostly small roles on TV, but this audiobook certainly demonstrates that she is capable of much more.
written by China Mieville
read by Susan Duerden
Yes, the basic conceit here—an alien race that communicates using two simultaneous voices, and which can not understand simple mono-voiced humans—is clever and well used. However, that's not what makes the book work. For a book about voices, the narrative voice is built around that of a single character, a woman who is so of this place, that following her gives a real sense of not a creation, but a lived in world. Duerden, whose roles include that of Carole Littleton on Lost, does a terrific job of stepping into this narrator and providing a critical ability to connect with a setting that could easily be difficult to grasp. Bonus: the alien voices are 100 percent cooler in audio.
written by Iain M. Banks
read by Peter Kenny
This wasn't the last book that Banks wrote before his too early death, but it was the last Culture novel—the end of a series of science fiction novels that tackled genuinely large issues of morality, and did it with the sharpest wit in this or any other galaxy. Peter Kenny dances through Banks' cutting dialog and quick action with a nimbleness that keeps all the book's humor alive while not losing track of a plot that twists across civilizations. Banks didn't know his time was short when this book was written, but it has an appropriate, autumnal feel. With a main plot that centers on the end of an entire people it's hard not to indulge in thinking of the obvious metaphors for the death of individuals. Go right ahead.
written by Alfred Lansing
read by Simon Prebble
In this chilly season, I double-dog dare you to listen to the first chapter of Lansing's account of Shackleton's ill-fated expedition and not be transfixed in icy horror. The book dates back to 1959, but it rarely falls prey to the tropes that have caused so many re-tellings of "grand adventure" to age poorly. You think it's cold outside now? I guarantee that listening to this book will make you grab an extra blanket, as well as gasp in wonder at what real people managed to achieve in the worst of circumstances. And then there's Simon Prebble. Not only did Prebble play Shackleton in a 2000 documentary, his plumy voice has now been the narrative force behind almost 500 books. You can find him reading fantasy, mysteries, or non-fiction of all sorts. And you should. There's a reason why Prebble has become the "golden voice" of audiobooks. He can make almost anything a joy to hear.