One of the tasks in the 2015 Read Harder Challenge (which I am completing this year) is to read an audiobook. Despite many friends raving about them, I’d always written off audiobooks as not-for-me. I like holding books; I like being able to flip through their pages and read the acknowledgments first. I was convinced I would not like audiobooks. But a list of tasks is irresistible to me, and so I decided I had no choice but to give one a try.
I asked around for recommendations, and then poked around to see what was available immediately from my library. I had a long drive coming up and I wanted to try an audiobook immediately. My aunt mentioned she’d listened to several of Toni Morrison’s books on audio, and so I got the one that was available immediately, Love.
This was four months ago. That first audiobook was a failure—I never finished it—but since then, I have become absolutely and completely obsessed with audiobooks. I still read mostly print books, but I must have an audiobook going at all times, or I get fidgety and upset and simply cannot drive anywhere, not even to the grocery store.
Looking back, it’s surprisingly obvious that I couldn’t get through Love on audio. Toni Morrison’s books are big, dark, stunning, beautiful creations, everything that is true and painful and dazzling about literature. Her books bring me closer into the world in the best possible way. They are moving and sad and challenging and gorgeous. They are not fluffy. I loved listening to Morrison read her own work, but it was almost impossible for me to take it in. I kept getting lost. I’d have to go back and listen to a section over and over again. I had to pay such close attention to listening, so as not to miss any of the nuance and complexity, that I couldn’t do anything else—cook or clean or work on a puzzle. By the time I had to return it to the library, I’d only read about half the book.
I was intrigued, though. I was shocked to discover that though my first foray into audiobooks had been a failure, I really liked the idea of them. In fact, I loved the idea of them. I loved the idea of being able to read while driving, cooking, cleaning the kitchen and most especially, while doing jigsaw puzzles. I decided to try again. This time I picked something that would require no brainpower whatsoever: Harry Potter.
This is when I fell absolutely, deeply, irrevocably in love with audiobooks. All winter, I sat at my dining room table, watching the snow fall outside and the light shift across the sky, listening to Jim Dale narrate Harry Potter, putting together puzzle after puzzle after puzzle.
Let me explain: I adore jigsaw puzzles. They are my go-to comfort. They are deeply satisfying, they occupy my hands, and somehow, they still the spinning and whirring in my brain. Doing puzzles calms me like almost nothing else can. They are finite and tactilely pleasing and deeply rewarding and reliable. It’s hard to articulate what happened when I paired listening to a beloved and familiar book with doing a puzzle. The combination of being able to read while doing something that is so soothing is magical. It is sublime, wondrous bliss.
Harry Potter was just the beginning. Once I discovered that I didn’t have to listen to brilliant literature on audio, that I preferred books I knew well or that were not so intense that I couldn’t zone out for a moment to look for a puzzle piece or glance at a recipe, an enormous world of new reading possibilities blossomed before me. Audiobooks changed my reading life in ways I never expected. I honestly don’t know how I ever survived without them.
There was definitely an adjustment period. I had to teach my brain how to process books aurally rather than visually. Harry Potter was the perfect gateway—I know the books so well that it didn’t matter if I missed a few sentences here and there. Since finishing all seven Harry Potter books, I’ve listened to memoirs, fantasy series, middle grade novels, science fiction, nonfiction, and literary fiction. I still enjoy listening to books that are on the lighter side, and I’m not ready to tackle another Toni Morrison novel on audio, but the range of what I enjoy listening to has grown dramatically.
My reading has also increased dramatically. So far this year, I have spent ten days listening to audiobooks. Ten days! That’s like spending an entire vacation sitting on the beach reading nonstop. All that time existed in my life before audiobooks. But now the time I used to spend driving or cooking or cleaning I also get to spend reading. I have discovered a secret pocket of time I did not know existed and filled it with incredible books. This is one of the best things that has ever happened.
But the most wonderful thing about audiobooks isn’t that I’m reading more; it’s the ways in which audiobooks have enriched my life. I listen to books while I’m driving around. I used to hate doing errands. I still do, but now I get to read while driving between the grocery store and the post office. I’m basically giving myself a little present every time I leave the house to do something banal and boring. I used to have to choose between doing a puzzle and reading my book. Puzzles are my ultimate comfort; after an exhausting day or when I’m stressed or upset, I turn to them for solace. Now I get that solace while also getting to read.
Perhaps the most profound change I’ve noticed in myself since I started listening to audiobooks is in the way I cook. I love cooking, but I live alone, and cooking for yourself gets lonely fast. Now I listen to audiobooks as I chop and saute and simmer and bake. It’s much easier to cook a nice meal for myself in the company of a good book. It feels homey; the book becomes a companion. This is a truly exceptional gift. Audiobooks have given me a way to do more of something I love (reading) while making it easier to do something else I love (cooking).
I’m constantly talking about the ways books open us, about how reading teaches empathy and connects us more deeply to each other and our world. Audiobooks have shown me that it isn’t only what is inside books that can open us, but how we choose to read them. I recently listened to Michael Lewis’s Moneyball on audio. It’s a book about baseball statistics, a weird and specific subject that Lewis uses to make some profound observations about our world. He comes back again and again to the idea that we will never learn all there is to learn about baseball math, that no matter how good we get at understanding what happens during a baseball game, we will still find new ways to understand it better.
This is how I feel about reading. I’l spend the rest of my life doing it, and I’ll still never learn all there is to learn about how books—and the ways we imbibe them—change and shape and influence our lives and our world.
Top Audiobooks of 2017 (so far):
The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater
I fell hard for this fantasy series about four teenagers searching for a long-dead Welsh king in rural Virginia. The characters and the setting are lush and full and magical. But the best thing about this book is the narration. The narration is stunning. I think I would have liked these books if I’d read them in print, but I don’t think I would have loved them. I simply cannot imagine this story without the voice of Will Patton. I loved the books enough that I actually got one out of the library in print and attempted to read over a few scenes after I’d finished the series. It felt like reading something half-alive, like the core spark of the story was missing from the page. I’d never experienced anything like that before. It’s a testament to how powerful a good audiobook can be.
George by Alex Gino
This middle grade novel about a trans girl named George is tender and honest and funny, and it’s also full of happiness. So much happiness. Though there were parts that were sad and hard and painful, for much of the book I found it hard to stop smiling. It is also a short listen–only three hours–and it’s narrated beautifully by trans actress Jamie Clayton.
The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
Once again, the narration of this book was so good and added so much to the story that it’s hard for me to imagine if I would have liked it had I read it in print.
Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes
I’m not usually one for self-help books, but I loved this book, and I’m pretty sure if I had read it print I would have felt lukewarm about it. Shonda Rhimes narrates it, and it’s basically like sitting down with her over several lingering meals and getting her life story + a pep talk.
Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling, narrated by Jim Dale
Jim Dale’s ability to deftly and perfectly preform so many different character voices is truly miraculous. While I’m listening to his magic, my faith in the beauty and capacity of human achievement is restored.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
Kathleen Wilhoite narrates this book–and all its assorted character voices, letters, documents, clippings, and emails–with confidence and integrity. I loved listening to the story unfold as it did, and despite it being a book of ephemera, it flowed beautifully on audio. Toward the end, I was so engrossed in the story that I had to stop what I was doing and simply listen to the final pages. I actually listened to the last ten minutes twice, because it was that good, and I didn’t want it to end.
Moneyball by Michael Lewis
This was my first foray into straight-up nonfiction on audio. I’ve been wanting to read this book for years and never got around to it. I found it much easier to get through while listening to; the book came alive. And while there were probably details I missed because I didn’t go back and read something over, my overall enjoyment of the book was much improved by listening to it.
Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
I did not love every Dear Sugar letter Cheryl Strayed ever wrote, and I did not agree with every piece of advice she gave. But I loved listening to this book. Hearing Strayed narrate her own responses made them feel more true and immediate then I believe they ever could have in print. There were some pieces here that made me cry; it wasn’t only the content and the beauty of the language, but the emotion and honesty so obvious in Strayed’s voice.