All of the hours I spend listening to the radio (public radio that is) have led me to believe that it’s the closest thing to reading. It certainly seems to work similar channels of my brain, and feels as effortless. I can become engrossed in a great radio broadcast much the same way as I’m drawn into a book, with the added bonus that the radio allows me to cook or drive at the same time!
Recently, however, a BOOK RIOT blog post reminded me that audiobooks are (of course) the closest thing to reading. Yes, I realize that’s about as obvious as you can get, but I hadn’t really thought much about them at all! I think that’s because the only audiobooks I’ve ever listened to were for children.
Titled 36 BOOKS BEST AUDIOBOOKS FOR YOUR ROAD TRIP AND BEYOND, the BOOK RIOT post woke me up to the fact that though audiobooks must be a terrific way to enliven a road trip or even a longish and tedious daily commute, their magical blend of writing and voice acting equate to reading with your eyes shut or better, to simply being read to by someone especially good at it.
While I didn’t have the stamina to check out every single catalog entry, I definitely got a good overview of what’s available.
The first thing that struck me is that some of the published work out there is meant to be listened to. Think of lectures, for instance. While they exist in print, lectures―true to their etymology―are meant to be read to an audience. One complete series from The Massey Lectures (a wonderful Canadian tradition), Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress (2004) is available at the Library and can fill many a quiet evening, or mind-numbing commute home.
And then there’s Birding by ear; a guide to bird song identification, the quintessential audiobook!
But there are other, serious works of literature that I place in this category because by design as well as by their sheer beauty, they SHOULD be spoken aloud and not simply decoded inside our heads. This occurred to me immediately when my browsing brought me to the works of Shakespeare, including King Lear, Hamlet and Mac Beth.
I think I’d also like to include Charles Dickens’ novels in this category, for the pure pleasure of hearing the opening paragraph of David Copperfield read aloud:
“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.”
In these cases, modern technology and centuries old forms merge with exquisite success.
Audiobooks can also be a great treasure for the fertile and lively imaginations of children, sometimes creating quiet islands of time for them to settle into; sometimes allowing them to escape into other worlds during long car trips (depending on the age of your children, you can try series like Artemis Fowl, The Bunnicula Collection or Benjamin Bratt and the Keepers of the School).
And maybe I’m too optimistic, but I’d like to think that audiobooks can provide children with a shared experience of listening and imagining to act as an occasional antidote to television or online viewing and video gaming, which are so often isolating experiences (some fun titles include Alien and the Pants of Doom, and the Amelia Bedelia Audio Collection).
Audiobooks for children can also make accessible to every level of reader life-changing reads like the wonderful novels of Jules Verne.
Trying to stay awake during a long drive or a night trip?
Listening to James Rollins’ The Sixth Extinction, or James Patterson’s The 6th target, will definitely get the adrenaline pumping, as will other adventures, mysteries and exotic or atmospheric listens like Tony Hillerman’s The Wailing Wind (part of the Joe Leaphorn detective series, set in the Navajo lands of the United States ), Elizabeth Peters’ Tomb of the Golden Bird (featuring the one and only intrepid Egyptologist Amelia Peabody and family), and James Lee Burke’s The Tin Roof Blowdown, which I’d love to hear if only for what must surely be Detective Dave Robicheaux’ delicious Cajun speech.
I think that autobiography and audiobooks are also a great combination which at times must feel like intimate, revelation-filled conversations between author (or “reader”) and listener, as varied and contrasting as the life experiences being shared, like those of Tina Fey in Bossypants (which Fey herself reads in the recording), Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking, Anne Frank’s Diary, or Frank Mc Court’s Teacher Man, also read by the author himself and thus featuring the added pleasure of his remaining Irish accent (though it may have faded a bit after years of living in New York).
Speaking of which, I think I’d listen to M.C. Beaton’s entire Hamish Mac Beth series with pleasure, provided it’s narrated in a Highland accent.**
(**Has anyone listened to any of these recordings? Can you tell me whether they include the charm of the Scottish accent and the sense of place that comes along with it?)
While there are audiobooks that can make you chuckle (which is a very good thing when you’re stalled in traffic or at the end of a really stressful day) , like Carl Hiaasen’s Bad MonKey, there’s a whole bunch of others that offer the distinct advantage of doing a big chunk of the work for you.
I mean, of course, works of non-fiction.
Some of these are unsuitable listening experiences while driving because it’s not a great idea to be narrated into a blissful, semi-meditative state while behind the wheel of a car travelling at 100 km an hour: books like Chakra Clearing, Andrew Weil’s Breathing, or Wayne Dyer’s Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life.
Others are contraindicated while driving because they risk occupying too much cognitive function (!!), but highly recommended as a terrific and less lonely way of getting through more challenging books. I include among these the fantastic works of Jared Diamond, like Collapse, as well as Stephen Hawking’s The Universe in a Nutshell, Nouriel Noubini’s Crisis Economics, a Crash Course in the Future of Finance (gulp!!), and even The Universe in a single atom (a lovely book!), which presents the Dalai Lama in conversation with Richard Gere.
However, it’s almost always a good time to try to learn a new language, and you can do this with Oxford University’s Take Off series.
Audiobooks can also offer the pleasure of escaping into the soundscape of classic NOIR serial radio, as The Black Mask Series does (The Black Mask magazine published crime fiction); or enhance traditions and special moments like the Holidays, with readings of stories like A Christmas Carol (performed by Jonathan Winters!) or Garrison Keillor’s A Christmas Blizzard.
With an audiobook, it’s even possible to experience a novel the way one of its own main characters does, which you’ll sample in some sense if you play Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, and follow the saga of blind Marie-Laure by listening only.
Whether you’re familiar with audiobooks, or have yet to experience the unique discovery of literature that they make possible, summertime sounds like the perfect time to borrow some from the Library, and then return to the Online Book Club to tell us what you thought of them.
AN INTERESTING SIDEBAR:
Part of the realm of audiobooks is the subculture of audiobook narrators: those professional actors and readers who create the magic and who seem to have developped followings of devoted fans. If you’re interested in knowing more about this niche, here are some links that will help you discover talented readers from all over the world: