A drawing of a woman caught between two worlds; one is in pink, and depicts Ancient Greece, the other, on the right hand side, is of a modern home environment in dark blue. A speaker emits noise on the kitchen worktop.
A drawing of a woman caught between two worlds; one is in pink, and depicts Ancient Greece, the other, on the right hand side, is of a modern home environment in dark blue. A speaker emits noise on the kitchen worktop.

I’m almost three months into Long Covid, and I’m in the middle of a relapse. Lying on the sofa, from which I’ve barely been able to move all week, I have one goal for today: to remove some scraps of nail varnish. They’ve been on my nails for weeks and today their ugliness feels like a taunt.

By around mid-afternoon I feel the faintest echo of energy and I seize the moment. I prop myself up very slightly, resting my head on two pillows instead of just one, and I press a cotton bud against an offending patch of varnish. At the pressure, my arms start to shake, energy trickling out of them like sand in a merciless egg timer. Suddenly I am light-headed and dizzy and my thoughts, usually so outspoken, become unintelligible. Nausea trembles in my stomach. I remove the second pillow, close my eyes, and don’t move again for two hours.

My experiences with Long Covid have been minor compared to some people’s: I only deal with severe fatigue, shortness of breath and occasional brain fog. Nevertheless, I have spent most of the past six months lying on a sofa, unable to move much, look at screens or – nightmare of all nightmares – read.

Audiobooks have therefore become a lifeline: a way to keep my mind from wandering into dark corners, keeping my days filled with stories when I can’t consume them in print. I have always loved audiobooks: the Harry Potter cassette tapes were the soundtrack to my childhood, and Jane Austen CDs that of my teenage years. I now have multiple audiobook apps on my phone and have at least three titles in constant circulation.

But where they were formally handy entertainment to accompany me on walks, they have taken on new meaning over the last six months. There are times when the brain fog and fatigue are so bad that my mind feels bruised and words feel like an assault, so I’m relegated to soundscapes of ocean waves. When I begin to emerge from this state, audiobooks are the perfect way to ease me back into the world. Their slow pace, their gentle narration, seem like a balm to both mind and body.

When I realised this in my early days of Long Covid I turned to some of the Classics, needing stories I knew well but that had relatively low stakes: fast-paced adventures or fight scenes would be far too much to handle. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and The Picture of Dorian Gray accompanied the first months of my confinement (Did I start relating to a frail Victorian invalid? Absolutely), distracting me from my body.

After my relapse in October I joined a number of Long Covid support groups online: one of many small things I’ve done to reclaim a sense of control. I needed to know that things could get better; I needed to see that my weakened lungs, which were keeping me up at night with breathlessness, were normal and manageable. Scrolling through hundreds of posts from my fellows, I no longer felt like I was fighting this alone, and I was filled with admiration of these incredible, resilient ‘long haulers’.

I quickly noticed how often audiobooks were recommended in these groups. Most people agreed that reading required a surprisingly large surplus of energy, and those of us managing extreme fatigue clung to audiobooks as the gentlest form of entertainment.

So, for those of you with Long Covid – or indeed any other chronic conditions that have had so little light shed on them until now – here are my recommendations for audiobooks to listen to, when listening is all you have.

Breath by James Nestor

Shortness of breath is the scariest sensation I’ve experienced during Long Covid; my lungs feel empty, deflated, unable to fill themselves up. While this audiobook is not a cure, it provides fascinating insight into the science of breathing and has been one of several tools in my ongoing recovery. It’s also the most recommended book I’ve seen in Long Covid groups – and those recommendations did not come solely from me, I promise.

The Lost Words by Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris

They say getting out into nature – even if just to sit in your garden – can be healing for both mind and body. I live in a second floor flat, and sometimes I can’t manage the stairs, let alone get outside. This stunning audiobook of nature poetry has a soundscape weaving through it that was recorded in actual nature. Hear rain falling on fern leaves, or gentle birdsong, accompanied by the soothing narrations of Cerys Matthews, Benjamin Zephaniah, Edith Bowman and Guy Garvey. It’s a meditative listen that has been my go-to audiobook for a gentle recovery from days beset by brain fog.

The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy

The bestselling book was a much-loved gift in 2020 as we all adjusted to our strange new world, and the audiobook edition has come to feel like a balm to me in 2021. Narrated by Charlie Mackesy, and with music that enhances the mood of every scene, it’s calmed and comforted me during sleepless nights when I’m breathless, anxious, or feeling hopeless about my situation.

Read more: This book saved my life’: How The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse became a publishing phenomenon

Don’t Laugh, It’ll Only Encourage Her by Daisy May Cooper

I’ve always erred on the side of optimism, but Long Covid has offered a daunting challenge to my relentless positivity. While it’s important to allow myself to feel down about things, I’ll still take any opportunity to do whatever I can to feel happier – and some audiobooks have become reliable allies in this quest. Daisy May Cooper’s memoir teems with hilariously honest stories from her youth: from accidentally spending all her student loan on a penthouse suite, to the horrors of cleaning boys’ toilets, these stories had me spluttering with mirth and looking forward to my next listening session. According to my (admittedly brief) research, laughter enhances your intake of oxygen-rich air too, so do your mind and body a favour by giving this one a listen.

Read more: Daisy May Cooper interview: 'I love being famous!'

A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee

I have fortunately not been diagnosed with POTS – abnormally increased heartrate – which many people with Long Covid have to deal with, so a great crime thriller has been an excellent way to safely and perhaps metaphorically boost my heart rate while I’ve been inside. Abir Mukherjee’s first novel is packed with fascinating characters and a plot teeming with intrigue, weaving together both crime and history in such a vivid way that I couldn’t help but binge-listen. I’d recommend it for times when you’re well clear of brain fog, as you won’t want to miss a second.

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead

Sometimes getting to my nearest food shop is impossible, and even when I’m ‘well’ travelling beyond London sends me into a pit of pain and fatigue for a couple of days. As long-distance travel has become a faraway dream, I turned to Great Circle, which took me across oceans, through time and to far-flung countries – and became perhaps my favourite audiobook of the year. The Booker-shortlisted novel tells the story of Marian, an aviator with fatal ambitions to fly around the globe pole to pole. Spanning both the 20th Century and many continents, Great Circle feels epic, but the depth of the characters and the investment I built in them brought the story close to home. I have raved about this audiobook to anyone who’ll listen, and writing about it now I’m feeling a strong urge to lose myself in it again…

Read more: The great adventures of Maggie Shipstead

If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha

It took me months to be able to look at a screen for prolonged periods of time without getting light-headed and faint, but one Netflix show I’ve been able to watch more recently (along with everyone else) is Squid Game. Fascinated by a culture I know little about, I searched for audiobooks set in Korea that would perhaps be a little more true to life. While Frances Cha’s novel doesn’t delve so darkly into South Korean society, it does explore its class system through four women living in the same apartment block. I found myself sucked into their lives and their obsession with – or dependence on – impossible beauty standards, and was immersed in a world I’ve never visited. I found it an engrossing listen that was exceptionally good at distracting me from my own life.

Mythos by Stephen Fry

In times of need, I turn to Stephen Fry. As Harry Potter was the soundtrack to my childhood (and Fry narrated it), I find something deeply comforting about his voice. Here, the beloved narrator tells the story of the Greek gods. I’ve found it particularly powerful in the hour before bed, when my mind has a tendency to verge towards the despondent, knowing I have to face a whole new day of this relentless recovery. The joy Fry finds in telling these stories is infectious, and lifts my spirits every time I press play.

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