I listen to most of my books these days. Between the demands of a high school theatre program, 150ish students in various states of learning, two children who occasionally enjoy being fed, a house determined to thwart me in unexpected ways, and a wife who is very supportive and helpful but has her own shit to square; it can be difficult to find time to sit down for the most necessary sort of literary respite. Oh, shit, also I write occasionally.
So I listen to books. I have an Audible membership which affords me two credits a month, but I often find myself at buying additional credits at 11 bucks apiece, which is frankly a steal given the work that goes into producing an audiobook. When driving, when performing any sort of chore around the house, and often as I fall asleep with the sleep timer on, my phone chugs away delivering quality books into my ear. I don’t feel bad about this, because I’ve made an active choice not to. Actively not feeling bad about things is another demand on my time.
It’s not the same, of course, as reading. There’s a third party involved after all, the narrator who reads the book, and their role is vital. There have been some quality books ruined for me by bad narration (the worst offender being There’s a Boy in the Girl’s Bathroom by Louis Sachar, a book I adored in my youth) and sub-par books elevated by a truly talented reader (looking at you, Ready Player One as narrated by Wil Wheaton (who famously beat me in a staring contest, a story I tend not to shut up about)).
But the combination of the right narrator, the right story, well shit. It’s better than reading. It’s transportive to a time when you were read to.
When I was a kid, my hunger to be read to superseded my parents’ patience in reading to me (as a parent now, I get it. All picture books should have a 40-word limit). So they would get me books on cassette, which in retrospect is such a weird damn format, especially for the longer books. I have a distinct recollection of checking out Wizard’s First Rule on cassette from the library and the whole thing fit on 36 separate cassettes. Bonkers. But there were two transcendental moments in my young listening career.
The first, unsurprisingly, is Jim Dale narrating Harry Potter. God damn is he good, the perfect combination of whimsical and serious. Later, on Audible, I searched for other books he narrated and discovered that he also narrated Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, which was delightful BUT hearing Jim Dale say the word “fuck” was so strange it bordered on trauma.
The second is less well-known. When I was young, my mom’s second cousin worked as a publicist (or something) for a Boston based storyteller named Jay O’Callahan. She (the cousin) knew I liked stories, and so she sent a couple cassettes my way and it no less than changed my life forever. Jay’s brand of storytelling was that sweet combination of the crafts: writing and theatre. His stories ranged from the strange and fantastic to the bizarre, hopeful, and moving, and his voice would carry you away on these journeys to places you could practically live in. It’s not an understatement for me to say that I wouldn’t have fallen in love with stories without Jay, and not just because they’re well-written, but also well-told.*
I grew up listening to these audio cassettes, and through some strange kismet, technology evolved to support this particular habitat. I no longer need the boombox in my room; all these worlds are available on my phone wherever I go. And it’s now, in the time that my life is busiest, that I find myself grateful that I can plug in a pair of earphones and return home, wherever it may take me.
*I would normally feel bad for the shameless amount of buzzmarketing I’m doing for Jay, but I don’t, actively or otherwise. The way I see it, he’s not the one I’m doing a favor for, but rather you. Check him out.
Andrew Steeves is an adult human male, roughly 1.83 Metres tall, generally found in urban habitats in Southeastern Wisconsin. His general diet consists of curries, soups, and popcorn. Natural predators include children that bear his surname and a near-constant existential dread that haunts his every waking moment. He is classified as an endangered species, as there are only a few left in existence.