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The Year I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Audiobooks

Rachel Smalter Hall

Staff Writer

Rachel Smalter Hall may be a professional Book Rioter, but she still hangs out in the public librarian clubhouse. Two of her top three loves include audiobooks and knitting, and her favorite song is Cold Hearted Snake as performed by Alyssa Edwards and Coco Montrese on season 5 of RuPaul’s Drag Race. She co-runs a boozy book club in Lawrence, Kansas, in her spare time. Twitter: @rach_smalls Website: Rachel Smalter Hall

audiobooksThis year is the year I fell head over heels for audiobooks. There’s no way I won’t always think of this year that way. It’s the year I spent seven and a half hours on the road to and from work each week listening to other people read to me in my car. And when that stopped being enough, I squirreled away extra minutes listening while knitting, doing yard work, restoring old furniture, shopping for groceries, riding my bike.

Weird things started happening this year; for the first time ever, I was disappointed if I got “stuck” with the print book instead of the audio, and I started liking favorite narrators and forming opinions about things I didn’t even know you could have opinions about, like whether movie stars have any business reading books out loud.

But let’s back up to the beginning. My fling with audiobooks started a year ago in January when I left a job that I really loved for a new job that would be more what I needed. I’d been doing lots of out-and-about community schmoozing type stuff for my local library, and my secret inner introvert was exhausted. The new job was in a much bigger library about 45 minutes away, working on their website from a tiny cubicle surrounded by personal effects like knitted monsters and toy Japanese bunnies. Perfect for me. I was nervous about the long commute, though, so I decided to a try a little bookish experiment and checked out half a dozen audiobooks to keep me company on the drive.

Maybe it was a little weird to start a brand new job with an audiobook about loss and death, but I hit the slippery highway anyway that first morning listening to The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, about the incredible pain of losing her husband and her daughter nearly, too, all within one year. I was excited about my new library, but I guess I felt a little lonely, too; maybe even a tiny bit like dying from the unknownness of it all. During those first long drives The Year of Magical Thinking proved itself dark and cold, just like the commute, but also immensely listenable. Those long drives felt just a little bit shorter because of it, and when the book was over I wanted nothing more than to get lost in someone else’s story all over again.

Just Kids by Patti Smith was next. Patti reads it to us herself — from her blue collar Catholic childhood to her starving-artist existence in Hotel Chelsea with Robert Mapplethorpe — all in her playful, gravelly, rock goddessy voice. It was official: I was in the honeymoon phase of a mega love-affair with audiobook memoirs; stories about the possibilities of other people’s lives even while crouching in death’s shadow. I devoured Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson about the megalomaniacal Apple exec; Kicking and Dreaming by Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart; Leaving the Saints by Martha Beck who disavowed her Mormon faith; Wild by Cheryl Strayed who hiked the Pacific Crest Trail after her mother died from cancer; Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman who spent a year in prison on a decade-old drug charge. These stories were even better when read by their authors, as many of them were. When someone opens up to you with their own story, in their own voice, it’s a recipe for magic. Lumos. Stupefy.

In April the mood shifted. It was spring, and we bought our first house and started thinking about kids. No longer in the mood for memoirs starring death and grief as the main characters, I listened to Daring Greatly by Brené Brown and The Kid by Dan Savage, which tells his true story of adopting a son with his boyfriend from a Seattle gutterpunk in the 1990s. Dan Savage reminded me how much I like funny books, especially when they’re read by funny people.

We spent the whole spring in a state of excitement and confusion: packing, moving, cleaning, going to banks, signing papers, having no idea how the hell to take care of a new house. On the upside, these boring, time-consuming chores left so much time for listening, and my like for audiobooks blossomed into full-blown gluttony. I think I was getting a little drunk on the power of speed-listening, and I wanted to LISTEN TO ALL THE BOOKS. I was checking out a new audiobook from the library almost every other day, and finally catching up on that giant stack of books I’d always wanted to read — you know the ones; you have them, too.

And so while we scrubbed the stove at our old place and hacked down chigger-infested honeysuckle at the new one, I binged on The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, about a scrawny baseball player at a private New England school with echoes of Moby-Dick; World War Z by Max Brooks, about a global zombie outbreak and its geopolitical fallout; True Grit by Charles Portis, about a badass gunslinging fourteen-year-old hellbent on avenging her father’s death; The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker, about a starry-eyed teenager who comes of age during an environmental catastrophe that warps the earth’s rotation; City of Thieves by David Benioff, a heart-wrenching bromance starring two young Russians on a mission to find a dozen eggs during the Nazi invasion of Leningrad; Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple, about a brilliant dysfunctional family in the Seattle ‘burbs whose neurotic mom flees to Antarctica; and Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, a tale that weaves Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s romance with the story of a lovesick dreamer in a provincial Italian fishing town.

As I listened — and repaired broken garage doors and doorbells — and listened some more, I stumbled into an entire online community of audiobook listeners, narrators, reviewers, and publishers, and started tuning into what they liked. I found out that some narrators are so well-loved that they have their very own loyal followings, and that the audiobook world has its own version of the Pulitzer Prize, the Audie Awards, with categories and listicles and Best Ofs, Oh my! This rabbit hole went much deeper than I’d thought.

In the meantime I kept hanging artwork and cleaning the goldfish pond and listening to audiobooks, and before I knew it the dog days of summer had snuck up from behind. Soon we were inviting friends and family over for housewarmings, hosting out of town visitors in our new guest room, and smoking pork butts in our backyard. I started talking to you guys about audiobooks here on Book Riot, too, and, having binged on the very best backlist all spring, I was ready to listen to some new stuff.

I should mention that this year is also the year I blazed through more new books than ever before, period, and I say that as a librarian and an English BA. There’s no doubt it’s because I was not just reading, but listening, too, making me a double threat. Look out, books.

First up on the new book gauntlet was The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, about a Justin Bieber-esque tween pop star, which I listened to because Kit said it was what would have happened if J.D. Salinger had written an issue of US Weekly. Next were Karen Russell’s weird and wonderful collection of short stories, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, including my very favorite about zombie homesteaders; & Sons by David Gilbert, about a family of richy rich Upper East Side brothers and something even weirder than zombies (I’ll never tell!); Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, about an adorable pair of misfit teens in the 1980s who fall in love over cool music and their mutual outsidership; Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld, about psychic twins in St. Louis and their prediction of a fatal earthquake; Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick, which follows an angry young gunman through his high school on the day of his 18th birthday; Cartwheel by Jennifer duBois, which loosely reimagines the Amanda Knox murder trial; The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, about a young orphan who loses both parents in traumatic accidents and must learn to go on in spite of his own deep flaws, and Reality Boy by A.S. King, about a former reality TV child star known as “The Crapper” who tries to understand why he had to live that childhood and whether he can still make the life he wants for himself.

And what, I wondered, is the life that I want for myself? It was now fall, and it had been a big year already, with a new job, new house, new writing gig, new audiobook obsession. The job, which had terrified me, was now much less scary. We still couldn’t keep up with raking the yard and fixing the gutter, but at least we hadn’t burned down our house in spite of several bonfires and marshmallow roasts. Our chubby cat Lupa had died from cancer, and we’d welcomed a snuggly black jungle kitten named Max into our lives. I’d grown more comfortable with my writing, too, even though I wasn’t sure I’d fully found my voice. I’d listened to so many stories, read in so many voices, and wondered where my own fit into the mix.

In October I took a giant step and started getting help dealing with some of the demons of my childhood; the sort that everyone has but are painful anyway. I like to think of myself as a tough girl, and I wasn’t used to crying on a stranger’s sofa every week and Feeling all the Feelings. I kept thinking about what Josh said about A Confederacy of Dunces: that humor is inextricably linked with sadness, and with that I dove headlong into a three-month bender of funny books about dysfunctional families.

There’s almost no need to talk about each book I listened to separately, because they all say virtually the same thing: that life is a catastrophe, so you might as well laugh. Rob Delaney said it about drunk driving and bedwetting in Rob Delaney: Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage.; Marc Maron said it about failed relationships and feral cats in Attempting Normal; David Sedaris said it about cocktail swilling mothers and nude beaches in Naked; Jenny Lawson said it about taxidermist fathers and West Texas in Let’s Pretend This Never Happened; Chelsea Handler said it about prison and mean rich kids in Are You There Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea; Jack Gaffigan said it about raising six toddlers in a New York City walkup in Dad is Fat; Jack Gantos said it about Hells Angels and punitive parents in Dead End in Norvelt; Stephen Colbert said it about our dysfunctional political system in America Again; John Stewart said it about our destroyed environment in Earth (The Audiobook); Nick Offerman said it about religious freedom and bratwurst in Paddle Your Own Canoe; and Mindy Kaling even said it in her own Mindyish way about Matt Damon and Ben Affleck in Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?.

This last group of audiobooks will always be especially close to my heart, not only because they gave me a way to laugh about painful things, but also and especially because every single one is read by its own author, all hilarious people who deliver their lines in the truest, darkest, funniest ways. I’m still sorting through my demons, and I’m sure I will be for a long time, but these books have made that voyage much less lonely.

And now, at the end of this year-long journey of grief-filled winter memoirs, spring backlist gluttony, freewheeling summer frontlist, and dark fall humor, I’m in love with audiobooks more than I ever knew I could be. There’s a way you experience stories differently when they’re read out loud; you can hear the vulnerability and straight-forwardness right away. There’s no faking it. It’s a powerful lesson for any reader, listener, writer, storyteller. If this is the year I fell head over heels for audiobooks — and it is — I’m inspired to make next year the year I tell more of my own stories: about my dad taking us to the dump as kids to watch the bears, about dressing up in bathrobes and towels for our yearly theatrical Christmas pageant, about being the weird family who piped humpback whale sounds through the outdoor loudspeakers every Halloween. The whole catastrophe.

If this was the year of listening to other voices, I hope next year will be the year of finding my own.


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