Last holiday, my beloved looked beyond my wish list (books, books, and books) to surprise me. In the depths of my stocking, I found and unwrapped a mysterious square box to uncover earbuds, my initials on the case and all. Little did I know, this generous and intuitive present would lead to unexpected shifts in my reading life.
In the past, I had a brief romance with audiobooks. Mostly on Northern California’s roads, disc after disc of titles I borrowed from the library ushered me to and from work. With the volume on high and windows down (my air conditioning broke years prior), I returned to some favorites in a different format: Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, translated by Edith Grossman and narrated by Armando Durán, and Janet Fitch’s White Oleander, narrated by Oprah Winfrey. I listened and listened until my battery died. Because I couldn’t find the safety code to access the CD player, I drove in silence until I discovered the forgettable numbers years later.
Since my bookish commute in the East Bay, a lot has changed. I said goodbye to my dear car and, for now, the Golden State. I work from home. Audiobooks stream through my in-ear, wireless buds, or I lean my phone in an empty orange coffee can while I orbit a room.
Over halfway through a sweltering July, I have finished 40 audiobooks this year. This accounts for 39% of the books I’ve read in 2022 so far. The popularity of audiobooks has been rising, and I’m tardy to the party and making up for squandered time. But I eased in at first, only slipping in my earphones for afternoon walks with my pup and listening at the regular speed of 1.0x.
My first audiobook of 2022 was Pop Song by Larissa Pham, and it felt serendipitous. At the front door, I tied my sneakers as Cindy Kay narrated the opening of “On Running”: “October in Connecticut. I’m 19, tightly lacing up my running shoes.” I, not 19 and in Mississippi, looped my laces then the neighborhood’s cul-de-sacs with prose in my ears. I began taking longer walks, my heart beating and brain wrinkling. I finished the book in a week.
During my second listen, my crush on this format deepened as the repetition, poetry, and to-do lists of Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat, narrated by Siobhán McSweeney, moved me. Being in motion and reading suited me. (It reminded me of those distant days when I brought a novel on the gym’s elliptical.) Suddenly, my reading wasn’t restricted to where I could open a book long enough for a poem or a page. I didn’t even have to remember a book; they were already with me. Plus, I liked that when I wanted a title, I could download it and begin — amazing for that mood reader pie slice of me.
Before finishing my second book of 2022 with my ears, I found Libby, downloaded it, and borrowed another. When reuniting with this format in new ways, I wanted to gauge how audiobooks would fit into my life. Once I was officially in love, I wanted them with me almost everywhere. My dedicated walking-and-listening time expanded into folding laundry and listening. As Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, narrated by Shayna Small, played, I cooked and washed dishes and brushed my teeth and stretched before bed. By the end of January, I finished three titles and paused my fourth at 60%.
A thing about me: I crave background sound — podcasts, music, comfort TV shows and movies — while I work. Between daydreaming and focusing, I prefer something there for when an easy task or a moment between tasks arises, like waiting for a page to load, heating up tepid coffee, or resting my gaze on green trees and puffy clouds.
Knowing I wouldn’t be 100% present for new-to-me reads during work hours, I brought back an old, and successful, habit. I borrowed books I hoped to revisit, including The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo and Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner (both narrated by the authors). I found myself pausing to hear sections I adored and falling for new ones. I sampled faster speeds: 1.25x and 1.5x. I studied beginnings, and I can’t count how many times I rewound the stunning ending of Kirstin Valdez Quade’s The Five Wounds, narrated by Gary Tiedemann. I enjoyed listening to familiar books so completely that I started buying titles I already treasure and own in paperback on audio.
This time around with the format, I’m learning a lot. 73% of my audiobooks come from the library, so I notice myself branching out reading-wise: gobbling up more contemporary fiction, middle grade novels, and romance with my ears; sampling — and loving — titles I wouldn’t have typically picked up in a bookstore. Some things remain the same, too. I bookmark sentences and passages (with just a tap) to copy down later. A devoted rereader, I delight in relistening.
With less headaches, rested eyeballs, and a cleaner kitchen, my earbuds and I have bonded. With nine unread titles ready to download and an audiobook credit waiting for a blue afternoon, I’m focused on finishing Emily Henry’s People We Meet on Vacation, narrated by Julia Whelan, to return early for the long line of holds. All of this to say, audiobooks and I, totally smitten, are just warming up.