Books NOT by the Bed…. They’re in the car
Not long ago I asked a friend what books she had by her bed, and instead of talking about the books by her bed, she told me about the audiobooks she’d been listening to while driving from her home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to her job as a nurse at Holloman Air Force Base, as she puts it, an “easy” 230 miles away. She spends three days a week at Holloman, so she only makes the trip to and from once a week. Still, she’s been getting a lot of listening done.
Among her recent audiobooks are Don’t Know Much About History by Kenneth Davis; Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens; My Little Town: Stories from Lake Wobegon by Garrison Keillor; Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno; White House Diary by Jimmy Carter; Moon River and Me by Andy Williams; It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War by Lynsey Addario; and Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe by George Friedman.
My friend’s mention of audiobooks sent me on a stroll down memory lane that ended with a box in my basement were I had stored a couple dozen audiobooks from years long gone, when, like my friend, I spent hours driving from here to there and back, engrossed in one book or another while trying to pay attention to the road in front of me.
I associate listening to audiobooks with very long drives, in my case the 560 miles between my home near Berkeley and an apartment in Las Vegas near the University of Nevada, where for some years I ran a nonprofit providing support for writers who were victims of censorship and persecution. I made the trip from California to Vegas and back regularly. I could have flown easily enough, but the fact is, I loved the drive, and I especially loved the drive with a bag of glazed old-fashioned donuts, a few four-shot cappuccinos, a couple cigars, and a good audiobook.
By “good,” I mean a story, above all, with a comprehensible plot, and simple language, and good guys and bad guys, plenty of action, a bit of sex, and maybe a little bloodshed now and then, and not a lot of meandering around inside some character’s head for endless internal monologues about failed relationships, and sentences that go on and on and on… and on. I mean, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen need not apply.
Of course what makes a good audiobook also makes a good book, period, if you ask me, if what you want as a writer is a big audience, lots of sales, and nice, fat royalty checks and you don’t care all that much about what the reviewers at The New York Times have to say about anything.
My views on these requirements for “good” are no doubt in part a function of my own perhaps low-brow tastes in fiction and an infatuation in particular with mystery novels, given that I’m always trying to write one. But I think my taste in audiobooks is also in part a function of the situation in which I listened, that is while driving, meaning listening to a story being told while of necessity being a bit distracted by the need to pay at least some minimal attention to the road ahead and the traffic around me.
I think there must be something hardwired in the human brain that naturally inclines us to enjoy hearing stories being told, even when somewhat distracted, or perhaps especially when somewhat distracted, given that for tens of thousands of years before the Sumerians invented writing, storytelling was only oral (for that matter, storytelling was still largely oral in most of the world until a century or so ago, when literacy became widespread). I imagine the first storyteller grunting out the first story to a band of hunter/gatherers all clustered around a fire after a long day of hunting and gathering—and being hunted and gathered in turn—gnawing on burnt chunks of mammoth meat while scratching their lice bites and generally celebrating another day of survival. That audience would have been easily distracted while they listened, I’m sure. There’d have been squabbles over who got those last few delicious grubs, and much fretting about that rustling in the bushes just beyond the firelight: hyenas, maybe? Or that hostile band of hunter/gatherers from across the valley? And then of course, starting at least 10,000 years ago with the discovery of fermentation, there would also have been booze, and lots of it.
So that first storyteller would have needed to quickly figure out how to keep the attention of the audience, if he or she wanted a nice chunk of burnt mammoth meat and an invitation to return the next night to tell another story. There’s certainly a lesson here for us storytellers, even if now we write them: engage your easily distracted audience.
What’s apparent from some of the earliest examples of oral literature (in the West, at least) that have made their way onto papyrus and paper and finally into print—I’m thinking here of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey—is that the storyteller kept the audience’s attention by keeping the language simple, with rhythm, and throwing in plenty of action, plenty of blood, plenty of sex—and the more illicit the better—plenty of monsters, and plenty of angry gods and goddesses screwing things up for the mortals. And nothing much has changed, really.
Thus in my box of audiobooks I have many examples of attention-grabbing stories, including The Last Juror and King of Torts, both about lawyers, both by John Grisham, who, in hunter/gatherer times, would surely have gotten an extra chunk of burnt mammoth meat and grubs, and an invitation to tell another story tomorrow. Also in the box were 30 hours worth of Larry McMurtry’s Berrybender novels—set in the Old West—and these aren’t even all of them! I’d read the first in the series, Sin Killer, as an actual book. McMurtry would also have gotten extra mammoth meat and grubs, I’m sure.
So would Elmore Leonard, for Mr. Paradise, a murder mystery, which at eight hours in length would have just barely gotten me door-to-door (how I hated it when a book ended before the trip), and Elizabeth Kostova, for The Historian, a vampire novel. Generally I don’t do vampire novels, but I’d read a review of this one when it came out, and I thought it might go down well on a long drive with a couple cigars, lots of caffeine, and some donuts, and I was right. Funny thing, later I bought the book, this time to read, as I’d begun a historical novel and I thought Kostova’s might be a good model, but I couldn’t get through it; it was more fun to listen to. No doubt the cigar and donuts and caffeine overdose helped.
Another audiobook that gustatory indulgence helped was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Now and then on my drives to and from Vegas I’d listen to SERIOUS LITERATURE in an effort, I suppose, perhaps misguided, to improve my own writing. Gatsby was one of these, along with Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Even unabridged, Gatsby was only four hours and 30 minutes, just long enough to get me about to Bakersfield, midway, where I’d usually stop for lunch and more caffeine. More recently, I reread Gatsby, and I hate to say it, but it left me wondering what all the fuss is about. Frankly, I’m not sure Fitzgerald would have been offered a second helping of burnt mammoth meat, if Gatsby was all he’d had to offer 40 or 50 thousand years ago.
When I first opened my box of audiobooks, I noticed that, like layers of fossils revealed in a cliff’s face, they provided a quick visual of changing technologies: On the bottom were actual cassette tapes (remember them?), and above them a layer of CDs. The Grisham novels were on cassettes, as was the first of the three Berrybender novels. The other two were on CDs, as was The Historian. The most recent audiobooks I bought for my drives to and from Vegas, though, are on an iPod, including The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson and The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly.
You may have noticed that my friend from New Mexico has been listening only to nonfiction, the sorts of books one reads or listens to if one wants to learn something. Not me. Yet now and then I did feel the urge to be informed as well as entertained, and so among the audiobooks in the box and on my iPod are a few nonfiction titles, including a history of money, The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World by Niall Ferguson. I had read parts of an earlier book of his, The War of the World, attracted like a rat to cheese by the subtitle, “Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West,” sucker that I am for anything having to do with doom and gloom. At the time I bought War and then later Money, I didn’t realize that Ferguson, a Brit, was a darling of the neocons and now teaching at Harvard. Had I known, I might have saved my money. Suffice it to say that I didn’t stick with Ascent even to my usual half-way stop in Bakersfield for lunch. I suspect that had Ferguson been spouting his neocon blather a few thousand years ago to a band of hunter/gatherers, he wouldn’t have been invited back; come to think of it, he might well have been eaten along with the burnt mammoth meat. Hunter/gatherers, I’m sure, weren’t neocons.
Another nonfictioner in my box, a sort of antidote to Ferguson’s neocon blather, is Robert Reich’s Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America. It came out in 2005 and that’s when I bought it. Normally I shy away from books with upbeat titles, but I found myself wondering what the hell Reich was smoking—he wrote his book in the midst of the disaster that was the Dubya administration, after all—and so I promptly bought a copy and listened to it on one of my drives to or from Las Vegas. When Obama took office three years later, I decided maybe Reich was right after all, contrary to all of my natural pessimism, but as I write this, Donald Trump is ascendant and could well be our next president, and so with a sinking heart I realize Reich was as wrong as I figured he was.
Also on my iPod is Nicholas Wade’s Before the Dawn, which, speaking of hunter/gatherers, explores early human history, based on the latest findings in genetics and archeology. A fascinating book. Wade would definitely have gotten an extra helping of mammoth meat. As would Walter Isaacson, author of Einstein, which as the title suggests, is a biography of the theoretical physicist. My unabridged audiobook version is 22 hours! Yet I listened to it all, going to Vegas, driving around in Vegas, and coming back, and then some.
By the way, if you’d like to learn about the history of storytelling, and the neurological roots of the urge to tell and hear stories, check out Reading and the Brain by Stanislas Dehaene, and On the Origins of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction by Brian Boyd, both published in 2009. Boyd, by the way, according to the cover flap, is “the world’s foremost authority on the works of Vladimir Nabokov.” Neither book appears to be available as an audiobook, no doubt with good reason.
What audiobooks do you enjoy? When do you like to listen?