Reading Out Loud: How I Got Into Audiobooks

It started with a long car trip, a short attention span, and this book:

Me Talk Pretty One Day

This was the beginning of my conversion, from audiobook skeptic to…well, someone who still doesn’t listen to audiobooks very often, but who can finally appreciate them in the right context.

I’ll be honest: I’m not a great listener, and the idea of reading a book solely by listening to it terrifies me. What if I miss a lot? It may be easy to do a 30-second rewind, but what if I need to revisit something that happened a few chapters ago? There are limitations to the audiobook that don’t exist on the printed page. For someone who has been reading physical books (and now e-books) for decades, it’s not so easy to go back in time and adapt to a more passive reading experience. I need to see the words, to interact with them on the page. With audiobooks, there is nothing to hold on to: readers must give themselves over to the experience, sacrificing control for the very different pleasure of having a story presented theatrically to them.

I like this idea in theory. It makes one think of families gathered around an old-timey radio (except, of course, in this case the large piece of furniture has been replaced by an electronic device that fits in the palm of a baby’s hand.) What could be more delightful than this act of togetherness? In actuality, though, many audiobooks are not that fun to listen to. They can be presented dully—or, worse yet, in improbable voices—by people who did not write the book, but were simply hired to read it.

Which brings me back to Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris. What I immediately liked about this audiobook was that it was read by the author. David Sedaris was telling his story to me, as if we were friends…or, at least, as if I had kidnapped him and forced him to entertain me for the duration of a long car ride (after which he was free to go). This actually heightened the reading experience for me, making it less about me interacting with the words themselves and more about the author speaking directly to me.

BossypantsI’ve discovered that this is type of audiobook I can appreciate. When another long car trip introduced me to Bossypants by Tina Fey, I was ready. Tina Fey is a talented performer, and she delivers her jokes better than any hired voice actor could. After all, it’s her story: there’s not going to be a better person to do her Lorne Michaels impression. Again, I felt that the reading experience was actually improved by listening to the author’s own voice. But it had me wondering, could I only respond favorably to authors telling me their life stories? What about fiction?

Beauty QueensLately, I’ve been listening to Beauty Queens, a YA book written and read by Libba Bray. My long car trips are behind me; now, I listen to the book while I knit. I think the two activities complement each other well, and it’s a habit I would like to keep up with in the future. My only worry is that I will never find another book as thrillingly well done as this one. For starters, Libba Bray may have the most charming multiple personality disorder ever. She juggles over a dozen characters, complete with different accents and linguistic quirks, flawlessly, and her energy level is always set to 11. The book is a satire about teenage beauty queens who get marooned on an island and must learn to survive, and it is just as hilarious as it sounds. I am finding that listening to an audiobook can actually be exhilarating…and I’m even pitying the people who only got a chance to read this in print. In short, it’s a far cry from my audiobook-hating days, when I assumed the only way I would listen to an audiobook was if I had just had laser eye surgery.

Of course, my first love will always be the printed word. It’s comfortable. It’s reliable. It won’t sway my taste too much in either direction, like a well-executed or terribly-executed audiobook might. Still, it can’t boast the engaging performance aspect of the audiobook—or, at least, not until I get better at funny voices. It’s always limited by my limitations—of imagination, of pronunciation, and, of course, of performing a Lorne Michaels impression. Sometimes the audiobook is just better. But the trick is finding the right one.

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Going Bovine

What if Don Quixote were a 16-year-old kid living in Texas, whose uneventful life suddenly became an adventure when he was diagnosed with mad cow disease? What if his Sancho Panza took the form of a hypochondriacal dwarf named Gonzo, and his Dulcinea a punk rock angel named Dulcie? What if his journey took him from a secretly sinister snack-n-bowl (where no one ever gets less than a strike) to a MTV-style beach house in Florida? And what if, for good measure, the author of this epic tale threw in some stuff about physics, time travel, an evil snow globe company, the Norse god Balder and the Small World ride at Disney World? In Libba Bray’s Going Bovine, this is exactly what happens…but the strange thing is, it totally works.

Going Bovine is the kind of weird, gutsy, balls-to-the-wall experiment that could easily crash and burn, but which, somehow, is all the better for its completely out-there premise. Bray doesn’t shy away from either serious issues or all-out quirkiness, which is why this novel soars when it could easily falter. It’s not perfect—it’s too overpacked, too flamboyant, and too self-referential to be completely accessible—but its messy, sprawling nature is, for the right reader, precisely where its charm lies.

…It’s probably not hard to guess that the trick worked on me. I was completely enamored of Bray’s hyperactive exercise in wit, wisdom, and a whole new level of surrealism. I loved her sense of humor—which is a prerequisite if you plan to enjoy this book—but I was equally enchanted by her endless imagination. To begin, the premise is completely insane: Sixteen-year-old Cameron Smith is a slacker high school student who starts to have weird health problems. In short, he’s losing both his control over his body and his grasp on reality. A doctor gives a completely improbable diagnosis. Mad cow disease. And then things get really weird.

Cameron enters the hospital, but he doesn’t plan to stay. He and his roommate Gonzo are destined for great things. Armed with a magical Disney World wristband given to him by an angel only he can see, Cameron is just healthy enough to spend the next few weeks on a journey in search of the one man who can save his life. Unsurprisingly, for this book at least, the man is called Dr. X, and he’s just come back from another dimension. Cameron and Gonzo—who has been promised that there’s something in this trip for him, too—begin their journey in New Orleans in search of a jazz musician who continues to perform despite the fact that he may have died years ago. They never stay in one place too long, however, as they are constantly threatened by both the fire giants who want to kill them and their parents who want to take them home. Yeah, I know.

It’s impossible to summarize the book, so the best way to review it is to give an impression of what it’s about. And that, essentially, is…well, everything. This book asks the big questions as well as the small ones. What’s real? What’s meaningful? Is there really an internet fetish site called “Naughty Gnomes”? Bray’s ideas are big, complex, and multitudinous, so the resulting story can’t help but be ambitious. Nonetheless, it is fun, entertaining, and a surprisingly breezy read despite its length of almost 500 pages. There are plenty of memorable moments, from Cameron and Gonzo’s narrow escape of the cult-like CESSNAB (The Church of Everlasting Satisfaction and Snack-N-Bowl) to the wild spring break that involves everything from gnome-napping to a dwarf in an electric chair. If you don’t get Bray’s sense of humor, you’ll likely curse her editor, and wonder why this book resulted in Bray being published rather than institutionalized. If you do, though, you’ll totally understand why it won the Printz Award in 2010 and why I’m wholeheartedly recommending it now.

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