Apple is giving away six high-quality audiobooks of classic stories read by celebrities, free with no strings attached, playable on desktop and mobile. You can download and listen to Pride and Prejudice, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Secret Garden, The Time Machine, Frankenstein, and a small Disney collection of Winnie the Pooh stories. Most of these audiobooks are excellent, one is iffy, and one is garbage.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (11:43)
The narration of Pride and Prejudice enjoys some ironic distance from the characters, and actor Kate Beckinsale delivers it with a subtle archness. Her natural accent, the kind that makes Americans think all English people are intelligent and classy, is a perfect fit for a novel of manners.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (4:20)
Kimmy Schmidt actor Tituss Burgess sounds like he’s reading to children gathered at the foot of his rocking chair. He puts life and energy into the words, and he “does the voices” just a bit, but not enough to get distracting over the 25 chapters.
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (8:00)
This book is a real challenge for a narrator, as the characters’ accents and voices are a running motif, and even a sign of little Mary Lennox’s character development. Avengers and Doctor Who actor Karen Gillan does the voices beautifully—at least as far as an American can tell. She narrates in her natural Scottish lilt, which, like the story, has a whiff of folktale fantasy.
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (3:29)
Frasier’s Kelsey Grammer is another well-matched narrator. His mid-Atlantic accent tips over into full English to match the first-person narration of the Time Traveller, a Victorian English scientist. He projects and enunciates like Frasier Crane monologuing on the air, as if the whole book is the Time Traveller’s TED talk. This is a weird, lonely story, one that goes by quickly, and probably the most pleasant to hear while falling asleep.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (8:11)
On his podcast Lore, Aaron Mahnke uses a halting delivery, as if he’s thrown five commas into every sentence. This clearly works for enough people to make Lore a success. On Frankenstein, it’s too much. Mahnke’s pauses and his flat delivery make him sound as if he hadn’t practiced before reading. Like most 19th Century gothic horrors, the original Frankenstein is drier than its later adaptations, and a dry narrator can make it a slog.
Winnie the Pooh by Disney Book Group (0:32)
Not even worth zero dollars. This is not A.A. Milne’s original collection of ten stories about Pooh. It’s only three uncredited stories, which seem to be pastiches of Milne’s originals, written in the same style but with a new plot. The narrator is fully competent, but her anonymity adds to the feeling that this was fished out of Disney’s junk drawer.
The company’s habit of raiding the classics, then copyrighting and trademarking its version, feels especially cynical in this sloppy edition. The three chapters are placed out of order, and they seem to lead to an ending that isn’t included. As a promotion of Apple’s audiobooks, this is a failure. Readers are better off dropping ten bucks on a version of Milne’s real, un-Disneyfied book narrated by Stephen Fry.
It’s great to see Apple handing out top-shelf books with top-shelf narration, even if they threw in a piece of Disney trash. Of course, instead of paying for more, you might just want more free readings. Open Culture has links to 900 free audiobooks, mostly classics.