I always hated the idea of audiobooks. I’m afraid that as a younger man I was a bit of a purist, loving the feel of the pages and the musty smell of the paper. But one summer, having little to do and little money, I began to explore my local library a bit, and found their enormous "audio" section, taking up a whole room.
At the time I was driving long distances by myself, to camp or to visit friends, and I picked up a few books by Yorkshire author James Herriot, read by Christopher Timothy, the actor who had played Herriot in the British television series. Little did I know that the experience would change my life.
As I drove around New England, I listened with growing appreciation to these tales of the Old England of the Yorkshire Dales veterinarian, which luckily for me were the perfect balance of character and plot, dialogue and description. They translated so well to audiobook that upon trying a second series by a different author, I was highly disappointed. But I experimented, and found that others were nearly as good, and thus my hate turned to love. Long car trips seemed to flash by when I was listening to a good book. I found that children’s books worked very well, as did anything with a slightly simpler syntax or less complicated prose style. Nevertheless, it depended greatly on the voice actor, and how they presented the material. I listened to a book by John Muir, which I had loved in print, but could not get through due to the deadpan delivery of the actor. Other books came alive in ways that even films couldn’t match, like the Harry Potter series read by Jim Dale.
I could read thirty or forty books a year in this way. Later, I expanded to old radio shows, history books, and lecture series. The lecture series became my post-graduate work, as I learned about subjects I never took the time to study in school. I began to prefer audiobooks to music when driving alone. My half-hour drives to work became something to look forward to, rather than to dread. I often found myself wishing the highways were just a little longer, so that I could finish a chapter. Sometimes I sat in my car in the parking lot, waiting for the words of a voice actor or lecturer to complete the final thought.
We all know how music can enhance an experience, or the reverse, and the same goes for audiobooks. My girlfriend and I listened to Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi reading The Odyssey as we drove along the mountainous coastline of the Gaspe Peninsula and the St. Lawrence Seaway. Every time he intoned "the wine-dark sea" we glanced to our right and saw that the sea was indeed the color of wine, with seals and whales cresting the summer waves. In this way, audiobooks allow us to be active while absorbing the words we love. One can imagine that listening to The Odyssey while sailing a boat around the Greek islands might take it to yet another level. Or an Appalachian Trail Hiker listening to Walden as he hikes through the long green tunnel, letting Thoreau’s words seep from his ears to his boots. You might walk the streets of Paris with Ernest Hemingway as the words of A Moveable Feast take you from Montparnasse to the Marais, better by far than any tour guide.
This is the subtle joy of audiobooks that I have come to know, making peace with the technology and allowing that in certain circumstances listening might be better than reading. Of course, the best of all possible audiobooks are the ones read by the authors themselves. It is a rare pleasure, but one not to be missed when the opportunity arises. The other day, driving through the broken glass and concrete of a city, listening to Henry Miller read his classic book Black Spring, I leaned my elbow on the windowsill to let my hand feel the breeze. The words shaped my perception of the abandoned houses and cracked streets. The vibrations from the speakers echoed through my arm, rattling my bones. Henry Miller’s voice and words bled into my waiting body, becoming a part of me, and I felt something that I hadn’t felt since childhood, that I was deep inside the pages of a book.
First published on Hackwriters: The International Writers Journal.