A die-hard reader embarks on a quest to see if audiobooks do it for her — and discovers something she wasn't expecting. By Kara CutruzzulaJan 13, 2017 12:07 PM
I first tried listening to The Night Circus on the long flight back from my Grandma's funeral.
It was kind of a terrible idea.
Let me clarify: My book choice wasn't terrible. In fact, this award winner was culled from a friend-sourced list of suggestions, and I had been looking forward to it. My fiction consumption has been rather pathetic in recent years, and I was eager to get a reboot. The six-hour cross-country flight from California to New York seemed like the perfect opportunity to sink into another world. I wanted to slip away from the sadness and overwhelming solemnity of church services and eulogies, and burrow into an alternate reality.
But five minutes into listening, I feared I was going to break the 30-second rewind button on the Audible app. My mind couldn't follow an entire sentence to its end, despite the gorgeous tones of the consummate narrator, Jim Dale.The vivid magic realism that author Erin Morgensternconjured couldn't crack my hard shell of grief or battle the low-level hum of the 747 ferrying me home. The surroundings felt wrong and my emotional core was playing defense, unable to absorb anything else, even an entertaining piece of fiction. I switched off the audiobook and flew in silence.
Perhaps that wasn't the most auspicious start to my self-prescribed audiobook education. I wanted to jump into this world for a few reasons: I was a podcast fanatic yearning for something longer and more detailed, and I thought audiobooks would be a sneaky way to tick off my epic "to read" list on the days I couldn't possibly read another word. But revamping my literary lifestyle when my brain was already exhausted was like asking a newbie runner to tackle the Boston Marathon. Fewer barriers to entry, that's what I needed.
I heard it in her voice. This fear was real.
So I ran straight into the arms of Aziz Ansari. Many of my peers -- single, thirtysomething city-dwellers -- had been raving about his book Modern Romance for its perceptive insights into dating, swiping right, and millennials' unrealistic expectations of love. (You know, light fare!)
As one might expect, Aziz hams it up with endless jokes and imitations of people beset by relationship woes; he somehow makes the rather bleak topic of finding love in a bottomless online dating suckhole positively charming, even hopeful. Oh, also? The book became even more hilarious when I discovered Audible's 1.25x, 1.5x, and 2x speed options. I refuse to listen to podcasts at regular speed -- I'd watch Netflix on double-time if I could. I sped up Aziz, and the effect of turning him into a motormouth created a sense of urgency, as if he couldn't wait to spit out the end of every sentence, paragraph, chapter.
In the beginning, Aziz called me "lazy" for listening to, rather than reading, his book. This little joke articulated my biggest questions about audiobooks: Would I feel guilty for not reading them with my own eyes? Could I still add these works to my "Books Read in 2016" list?
Aziz talked to me while I washed dishes and while I avoided seasonal pumpkin treats at Trader Joe's. His asides felt special and specific to the audiobook. "I like that voice," he said after imitating a high-pitched woman. "I'm just doing that for me." His pronunciation of the word "algorithms" made me laugh so hard I choked on a baby carrot. After a few days, I noticed I wanted to listen when my eyes were tired but my brain still sought stimulus. After working in front of a computer all day, watching TV or a movie can seem like torture. Listening to Aziz made me feel like I was still learning something about the world -- and being endlessly amused along the way -- without taxing my noggin.
After having such success with one comedian, I decided to try another: Amy Poehler's memoir Yes Please. Amy kicked off her book with a high note about her low notes: She began dropping truth bombs about how writing is hard, and how she wrote this book on subways, airplanes, and between shooting Parks and Recreation. She admitted to keeping Nora Ephron's Heartburn next to her for writing inspiration and I thought, "Ah yes. Amy might be my insecurity soulmate."
My 5 tips for audiobook first-timers:
Experiment. With genres, authors, narrators. Take a cue from Modern Romance and try dating all sorts of audiobooks before committing to one.
Travel. Take your new books everywhere with you. I couldn't concentrate on rich prose while in the middle of a claustrophobic subway car, but listening in my open living room allowed the words to unfold and breathe.
Take notes. When I'm reading a BoP (Book on Paper, obviously) I often dog-ear the corner to refer back to certain sections, but Audible has a "clip" function so you can grab your favorite soundbites and write notes or share them with friends.
Give up. If you're not feeling a book, just like with a song or a print book, allow yourself the license to move on. You can always return in a different mood.
Stick it out. Some of my richest moments came after listening for hours. Much like a long, intense read that you can't put down, the joys come from deep investment. Life's too short to rush a good thing.
For a long time I felt guilty that my taste in literature didn't match the highbrow bona fides of my friends or the New York Times book reviewers. At The Strand, New York's largest cathedral to literature, I'd skulk off to the memoir or biography or self-help sections, embarrassed by my taste, but also secretly thrilled by my counterculture earnestness. But Amy's unabashed honesty made me think, "She can write whatever she wants, I can read whatever I want, and yes, I should listen to whatever I want, too."
Hearing Amy's insecurities was refreshing. When she calls herself "middle-aged," but says she doesn't know anything and is slogging it out like the rest of us, I actually believed her. Reading about the trials of a charming A-list actress would awaken my inner cynic: Is she sharing this because she thinks she has to be self-deprecating? In this medium, however, I heard it in her voice. This fear was real.
In between stories about the origins of the Upright Citizens Brigade and her water breaking after an SNL dress rehearsal, she drops crumbs of advice. Like how she calls up friends in New York and asks them to meet on a street corner so they can walk and talk together, because few activities are more therapeutic than looking at the outside world while sharing your inner ones. This made me want to go for a long, meandering walk with Amy or another narrator in my ear. I realized I could achieve that same sense of calm and personal connection with nothing but a pair of headphones and sensible shoes.
To chase this light-and-frothy libation, I took a much harder shot. 10% Happier by Dan Harrispromises, via its subtitle, to reveal how the author tamed the voice in his head, reduced stress without losing his edge, and found a self-help practice that actually works. Tall order, but the book caught my attention by starting with gossip about his mentor Peter Jennings, possessor of a volcanic temper and unyielding perfectionism. As Harris charts his own rise from news network wunderkind to high-functioning coke addict, it's hard not to be tugged along. The point of his book, he says, is to "demystify meditation," a practice that nearly saved his life after an on-air public meltdown.
I listened to this book most often while riding the subway. That act somehow felt like a natural fit because Harris lives in New York and he's deft with details. Post-9/11, he returns home to his apartment only to realize he's been away so long on his overseas assignments that he missed the transition to DVDs. Hearing this polished news anchor who was able to maintain his public persona say things like "With coke, you never reach satiety," made me wonder about my fellow subway passengers. What secrets were they hiding? What stories would they eventually tell? Harris made me want to ask them (I didn't) and try meditation again (I did).
Next I tried H Is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, yet another instant classic. I actually own a physical copy of this book, acquired in the most cliché way possible: I scooped it off a Brooklyn stoop while walking to yoga on a lovely spring afternoon. I told the person giving away her books that I'd been meaning to read this one, and that it must be fate that I happened down this street. I walked home high on my own luck, and then of course the book sat on my shelf for months, untouched.
After firing up the audiobook, narrated by the author herself, I was immediately struck by two things: Helen's voice is so soothing, and I was very glad I didn't crack the spine on my hardcover. Her prose, with its rich-as-a-Rockefeller vocabulary and abundant allusions, isn't the kind that dances lightly in front of my oft-tired corneas. This, it seemed, was exactly the kind of book that wanted to be read aloud. I went for a walk in my neighborhood in the brisk but sunny winter cold, and as MacDonaldpecked away at her own fascination with goshawks, I, too, began to notice the birds among us. Nearly all of them were pigeons, but still, her curiosity spurred my own. One takeaway from this deep and tragic book that begins in mourning -- MacDonald's father passes away at the start -- is that you're never too old or too young to become a birder.
I've been reading for so many years, but didn't know it could still take on new dimensions.
Finally I decided to give The Night Circus another try. After a long day of editing, I lay down on my couch and turned on the mellifluous voice of Mr. Dale. Now, months removed from my fresh grief and able to concentrate, I found the book soothing, transportive. Mostly, it made me want to become a better writer.
What struck me about this whole experiment was just how much I enjoyed having someone in my ear. Amy, Aziz, Dan, Helen, and Jim were there while I puttered around my apartment, skirted slowpokes on the subway platform, and took off for a casual run. They even made me feel more social, especially on the days when I was working solo in my home office. Reading a book can feel immersive, but it's a distinctly one-sided endeavor. With these new, um, let's call them friends, it felt like we were having a conversation, or like I was two drinks in at a bar, listening to a fascinating character spin a good yarn or two.
I knew I wanted to see if audiobooks were right for me before setting out on this listening marathon, but making a deeper connection to something -- or someone -- outside of myself was more meaningful than I could have imagined. I've been reading for so many years, but didn't know it could still take on new dimensions. The best part? There are dozens of genres and thousands of narrators left to meet.
And yes, of course I'm going to add all of these books to my "Books Read in 2016" list. After all, we did share something rather special together.