If audio books are already part of your commuting life, you know there’s nothing like them to speed a trip along. So if you’re already an audiobookophile, you may want to skip down to my recommendations. If you’re new to audio books, a few thoughts about what they’re really good for:
- Finally getting to the classics—those books one has started numerous times and put aside. My first listens were things like War and Peace, Moby Dick, Remembrance of Things Past and
- Distraction; ideal for driving, public transport or mindless labor (knitting, vacuuming, etc.). Because a lot of the work I do is mechanical (I sometimes make somewhat meticulous paintings) and doesn’t engage the decision-making part of my brain, audio books, particularly plot driven ones, provide a perfect amount of distraction. For this very reason, my listening habits devolved from Tolstoy to Stephen King in short time. This brings up some of the nuances of selection and naturally every listener will have different needs and tastes in terms of matching genre and literary quality to activity. I find I want a more sophisticated book (in terms of style or content) for the train than I do when driving. Driving requires enough of my attention to allow for books of, arguably, lesser literary quality. Of course movies are an option on the train, but I have a more difficult time selecting a movie than a book. And unlike audio books, fellow travelers are party to what kind of garbage I’m watching.
- Loneliness and escapism. Because I spend a lot of time making aforementioned somewhat meticulous paintings, I also spend a lot of time alone in a room. Listening to books vanquished that loneliness, and for the past several years, I’ve slept with ear buds in while being lulled to sleep (plumy-voiced English narrators are great for this). Listening to a book also prevents me from listening to the voices in my head that remind me what a worthless piece of shit I am (in part because I listen to trashy books whose titles and authors I immediately forget).
Note: know or sample your narrators. The narration can obviously make or break an audio book, independent of literary quality. I have to eschew some of the thrillers I like to listen to because Scott Brick, whom I consider unbearable, narrates them. On the other hand, I’ll listen to most anything narrated by George Guidall. Some books have celebrity readers that add another layer of entertainment, like Keith Richard’s autobiography, Life, narrated by Richards, James Fox, Joe Hurley, and Johnny Depp.
While I have no pretence to be a literary critic, I have been listening, to audio books for over a decade, and my library contains something like 1500 titles (OK, a great number of those are airport bookstore bestsellers).
The following three recommendations will certainly appeal to people who enjoy NPR’s programming.
Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal
Mary Roach follows food through the alimentary canal, from saliva to shit, and provides a history of how we’ve imagined the process. She writes about people involved in taste testing dog food and she investigates whether Elvis’s constipation could have killed him. It’s an amusing and educational listen.
- Written by: Sarah Vowell
- Narrated by: Sarah Vowell, Conan O’Brien, Stephen King, Dave Eggers, and Jon Stewart
I describe this better than its Audible blurb: Sarah Vowell exposes the glorious conundrums of American history and culture with wit, probity, and an irreverent sense of humor. With Assassination Vacation, she takes us on a road trip like no other, a journey to the pit stops of American political murder and through the myriad ways they have been used for fun and profit, for political and cultural advantage.
Vowell’s narrative voice is that of a precocious, snarky teen, and the guest voices are an entertainment unto themselves; including Conan O’Brien as Robert Todd Lincoln, Eric Bogosian as John Wilkes Booth and Stephen King as President Abraham Lincoln.
Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner
Real life forensic pathology is much more prosaic than CSI’s, but equally entertaining. Melinek recounts her training in NYC’s Medical Examiner’s Office in such a way that we learn alongside her. She shows how certain forensic evidence is often at odds with the direction the police want to take an investigation for pragmatic (economic/political reasons). Two months into her training comes 9/11, anthrax attacks, and the crash of AA’s flight 587—corpses and stories abound, and the irony of her earlier anecdotes shifts into mourning, albeit detached.
I tend to be a binge reader especially In the Mystery &Thriller genres, and there’s nothing more comforting than discovering a series of books that may take weeks or months to exhaust. Perhaps familiar are these series’ authors and protagonists: Craig Johnson’s, Walt Longmire; James Lee Burke’s, Dave Robicheaux; Michael Connolly’s, Harry Bosch; and Lee Child’s, Jack Reacher. All great listens and very American-regional. Perhaps less familiar are these international pairings that I highly recommend: Jo Nesbø’s, Harry Hole (Norwegian); Gianrico Carofiglio’s, Guido Guerrieri (Italian); Jussi Adler-Olsen’s, Carl Mørck and Department Q (Danish); and John Burdett’s, Sonchai Jitpleecheep (Thailand).
In the next issue, I will offer recommendations in the rapidly evolving Science Fiction and Fantasy genres