I love books. I love reading. I have loved books and reading since I was a first grader devouring the Sweet Valley Twins like my life depended on it. Even into high school, when many of my peers stopped pleasure reading, I always had a book with me. I read in my free time between classes, I read at home, and I read in the car on long family road trips, doing everything I could to tune out my parents and three younger sisters.
I loved reading and books so much that I decided to become a high school English teacher. I entered college with high hopes and lofty dreams, convinced that nothing could ruin my love for reading and that I was destined to instill a love of literature in all of my future students.
But something happened in college. Between all the reading I had to do for my English classes and then all of the reading I had to do for my history classes (I was a double major) and then all the reading I had to do for every other class in-between, I stopped reading for fun. I still enjoyed reading. I fell in love with many of the books my professors assigned (and gave my roommate an earful when I didn’t love them). But it was always work. One of my more enjoyable English classes was a young adult literature class; I got to spend an entire semester reading books written for middle school and high school students. There were weeks I would laugh at myself because I was putting off my reading for the class because I had to do my “real” homework. Then I would remember that reading Gallows Hill by Lois Duncan was my real homework.
I loved reading, but reading had become my job. First it was my job as a student and then it was my job as an English teacher teaching four different English preps. I read all of the time, but I was doing it for research for my lesson plans and re-reading books I had already read so that I could keep up with my students. Even during the summer months, I read one, maybe two books of my own choosing. I bought book after book that I theoretically wanted to read, but after a school year of lesson planning and paper grading I just couldn’t find the mental energy to pick up another book. But even then, every trip through Barnes and Noble and Borders (before it closed for good) meant purchasing another book that I really wanted to read, I just had to find the motivation to take the time to do so.
Like many Xennials and Millennials, my first memory of audiobooks came in the form of read aloud books with accompanying tapes (or sometimes records) that would give a “ding” every time I was to turn the page. Perhaps it is that memory that held me back from initially joining the audiobook crowd, molded by this early memory of me as a budding reader being read to by a detached voice on our family home stereo system when I couldn’t quite read all the words on the page by myself.
My husband was the first to introduce me to the concept of audiobooks. During the first three years of our marriage, he worked in Michigan, I worked in Illinois, and we lived in Indiana. He spent nearly two hours on the road every day and he finally asked me to start picking up audiobooks from the library. I picked up at least one new book every two weeks, getting everything that I thought he might enjoy. He listened to dozens of books during those three years of commuting across state lines, but even though I was spending at least an hour on the road every day, I never thought to try it for myself. I turned my nose up at the idea that listening to a book counted as reading.
I slowly came around. When my husband and I took an early marriage trip from northeast Indiana to Yellowstone National Park and back, The Goblet of Fire and The Order of the Phoenix narrated most of our vacation, with the beginning of Steinbeck’s East of Eden getting us the last miles across Iowa and Illinois on the way home. We fell in love with Jim Dale’s voice as he swept us away to Great Britain and Hogwarts. Over the years, we have listened to the entire Harry Potter series a couple of times, eventually using the audiobooks to introduce our children to the Boy Who Lived when we traveled to Michigan nearly three years ago.
Audiobooks became our go-to for traveling entertainment. After our Yellowstone trip, we never left for the road without at least one audiobook at our disposal. Once our kids were old enough to pay attention, we started looking for books that we could listen to as a family, the first being the entire Harry Potter series. This has made our desire for traveling with our kids doable, especially as we keep increasing the distance of our vacations. Our daughter suffers from motion sickness, preventing her from quietly reading books in the back seat, as I used to do on nearly every family vacation of my childhood. In addition to witnessing the demise of Lord Voldemort, we’ve watched Beezus and Ramona grow up, gone hunting with Old Dan and Little Ann, quested with Percy Jackson, and on our most recent trip, survived one natural disaster after another.
But I haven’t just learned to enjoy audiobooks for vacation travel. My daily commute is 45 minutes to an hour round trip. While NPR and podcasts can be an informative and sometimes entertaining way to pass the time, I have found that audiobooks have become the best part of my commute. I have also discovered that I don’t have to depend on CDs from the library. Our public library allows patrons to “check out” audio books using a couple different MP3 apps, my favorite being Overdrive. Sometimes I have to wait for what seems like forever to get a book I’ve requested, but I have a running queue of the books that I want to read. I’ve “read” childhood books that I somehow missed along the way, suspense fiction that I could never find the time for (Gone Girl was fantastic), new Young Adult fiction that I might have never touched otherwise, and non-fiction that has been on my “to read” list for years. As a bonus, when I’m deep into a grading pile that I can’t seem to get out of, audiobooks have helped me get through the reading that I need to do to prepare for class discussions over books that I’ve assigned. I get the refresher that I need over material that I’ve read multiple times before. I’ve gotten past the idea that audiobooks are cheating and have embraced the research that says just the opposite.
And listening to audiobooks hasn’t replaced our family’s love for the written word; it has enhanced it.
As Arielle Pardes states in WIRED, audiobooks bring “books back to the center. Most of us experienced our first stories as a sort of ‘audio’ book—narrated not by the author, but by our parents and our teachers. We learned the contours of the words from the way they pronounced them, and fell in love with stories because they were read aloud to us. Perhaps audiobooks can do that too: bring us back to the books we love, even when reading in its purest form has never felt more out of reach.” On the anecdotal level, I can say with certainty that listening to audiobooks has actually increased my desire for physical reading as well. The more audiobooks I listen to, the more I want to read and the more I want to know. Audiobooks have reawakened a love for good writing and language, challenging me to try new genres and topics in the time spent in my car while also encouraging me to pick up and physically read one of the many unread books collecting dust in my living room.
And instead of convincing our children to listen instead of reading it for themselves, it has done the complete opposite. By the time our daughter started second grade, she was asking us for permission to read the Harry Potter books that she had spent the entire summer listening to every time we got into the car. She has continued to do this with nearly every book series we have listened to together as a family. Our son, the emerging reader, has started reading the I Survived books that we listened to on our last vacation, determined to read them for himself now that he has been introduced to the stories.
Several years ago when I read Stephen King’s writing memoir, On Writing, I was shocked by the king of modern American horror’s claim that he reads 70 to 80 books in a given year (in addition to writing thousands of words deemed worthy for publishing). He says, “Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life. I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in…You can even read while you’re driving, thanks to the audiobook revolution. Of the books I read each year, anywhere from six to a dozen are on tape.” Somehow, it was encouraging to know that a professional writer who sees reading as essential for his career believes that audiobooks are another legitimate means to that end. His belief in audiobooks has led him to be the reader for several of his books, and I have to admit that there is something special about listening to an author read a book the way they imagined it, adding another layer of engagement to the text.
It may seem like a given that an English teacher would say that books matter, but they really do. We are a society that is woefully uninformed about the world around us (despite having the Internet at our fingertips), deciding to stay inside our own little boxes and comfortably clinging to a tribal mindset that is slowly eating away at our democracy. Well-written nonfiction informs us about history and science and geography and the world around us. Studies have shown that literary fiction increases our empathy because it puts us in another person’s shoes. In our busy go, go, go society, it is easy to just say, “I don’t have time to read and I don’t know that it really matters anyway,” but it does matter. It makes us smarter, more creative, more engaged, and more empathetic human beings. And it doesn’t have to be hard.
So give it a try. Stop at your local public library and check out some CDs or download an audiobook app and give it a free two week trial. Find a book read by one of your favorite actors (Sissy Spacek read To Kill a Mockingbird to me last summer and it was delightful) or a book read by the author. Pick something that has been on your “to read” list for years. Who knows? You may have just discovered a way to get off of your phone and engage your brain, and I think that’s a win, don’t you?