Audiobooks We Have Loved

Audiobooks We Have Loved

Last week, I wrote briefly and incompletely about the history of listening to books. Focusing on my own field of expertise–the nineteenth century–helped me think about the way listening to books being read aloud might create bonds between people, and certainly created opportunities for shared experiences.

To say that we at Books@Work spend time reflecting on our reading experiences would be an understatement. But, when, at the beginning of the month, I asked about experiences with audiobooks, everyone was surprised. Like myself, they hadn’t given much thought to their experiences with this medium, though, upon reflection, nearly everybody had something to say about it.

For most of us, audiobooks were road trip staples, a necessary part of a family vacation that, in retrospect, seem as integral to our experiences as the destination itself. Ann described these as “car trip saviors”; she and her family listened to Anne of Green Gables and The Red Badge of Courage “many, many times.” For her and her sons, too, “Jim Dale’s voice and Harry Potter are inextricably linked.” Jessica has “vivid memories of long car trips between Pittsburgh and Nebraska” with her husband; they listened to Dan Simmons’s Drood, Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation and “many times over and over to David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day and Barrel Fever and Other Stories.” Capria recalls a recording of the 1977 cartoon version of The Hobbit, which they listened to repeatedly. Her son now “listens to it constantly.”

On long car trips between Fairhope, AL and Savanna, GA, where my stepsister was in school, my family listened to Murder on the Orient Express, All Creatures Great and Small, The Horse Whisperer, and, once, Tuesdays with Morrie. “You didn’t like that one,” my mother reminded me recently. In retrospect, I’m not sure–I might have just been a teenager.

There’s a magical quality to these experiences, one that may well be available to individual listeners. I listen to audiobooks while running, and their texture bleeds into my experience on the trail or the road in a way podcasts and music fail to. I spent an entire summer listening to Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science; I remember it as blue and green and wondrous, and, once, during a lightning storm, terrifying.

When we experience audiobooks communally this magic is amplified. It becomes part our relationships with one another. “Do you remember the one about the rabbits?” we ask. “The time we had to keep driving until we reached the end?”

Last December, my mother and I drove from Ohio to south Alabama. It’s a bone-aching, fourteen-hour drive, and we spent its entirety fretting over what would keep us both entertained. Somewhere between Montgomery and Mobile, In the Kingdom of Ice came over the radio. For 30 minutes, it held us. Spellbound.

Image: Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Sappho and Alcaeus, 1881, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Cecily Erin Hill

Cecily Erin Hill

Cecily Hill is the Project Director, NEH for All at the National Humanities Alliance and former member of the Books@Work team.