Last month I spent a little time in Los Angeles traffic — and by little I mean “geologic” little, and by traffic I mean “Car Max” parking lot traffic. At one point, the Garmin GPS was telling me that I was 19 minutes from my destination for about an hour.
Los Angeles, of course, is famous for traffic, so, I had planned my travel accordingly. I gave myself elephant-gestation amounts of time to get everywhere.
Moreover, I’d been warmed up for the reality that I was going to be moving at the pace of a heavily sedated snail, because days before leaving for L.A. I had driven from Manhattan to Boston, confronting both the standard evening rush hour traffic and then two accidents, which clogged the Merritt Parkway the way bacon clogs arteries.
But here is what allowed me to keep my sanity: Audiobooks. I have never outgrown the pleasures of being read to. In truth, I’m not sure anyone does. And whether I’m traveling the mere five miles from my home in Lincoln, Vermont to Bristol or embarking on a journey that traverses three states, the trip seems to take a whole lot less time when I have an audiobook to keep me company. As John Adams once said, “You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket.” (I love the point of that quote, as well as the alliteration. Just don’t try to envision it literally. Whenever I do, I see a Barbie Doll-sized Robert Frost waving up at me indignantly from my shirt pocket.)
Since my wife’s and my daughter was little, audiobooks have been a part of our family’s life. Those six-hour car rides between northern Vermont and my mother-in-law’s apartment in New York City would have felt like Odysseus’ journey — an interminable expedition with all sorts of monsters lurking along the Taconic Parkway — if it weren’t for Beverly Cleary’s timeless novels for children.
I should be precise: Those journeys would have felt endless if it weren’t for the way Stockard Channing read aloud Beverly Cleary’s timeless novels for children. Channing is a terrific actor with a bunch of Emmy and Tony awards on a shelf somewhere, but my favorite thing she has ever done is bring Ramona and Beezus – and their parents and teachers and friends — to life. Even though my family was listening to those audios well over ten years ago, I can still hear in my head the way Channing voiced Ramona’s teacher, telling the girl on her first day of school, “Now, you sit here for the present.” Alas, poor Ramona assumes this means that if she remains in her seat, she’ll be given a gift. A present.
A terrific actor will do that for a novel; a thoughtful narrator will bring a history or a memoir to life. I first listened to Jon Krakauer read his riveting account of the disaster that befell climbers atop Mount Everest, “Into Thin Air,” back in 1997. I’ve listened to it at least three times since.
My sense is that we all have totemic connections with the particular stories that feed our souls. And whether we listen to an audiobook while driving (as I do), or gardening, or exercising, it can transport us from the monotony of the moment. It can make that moment memorable and special and rare.
Among the audios that kept me sane a few weeks ago when I was in asteroid-is-about-to-hit-the-earth traffic in Connecticut and California? Actor and writer B.J. Novak’s recently published first collection of short stories, “One More Thing.” It wasn’t simply that the stories were surprising and moving: It was that Novak himself read many of them. And when he wasn’t reading them, his friends from “The Office,” Mindy Kaling and Rainn Wilson, were. Or Emma Thompson. Or Lena Dunham. Great writing and great narrating is a spellbinding combination. We’re talking gin and tonic.
Now, I’m not claiming that an audiobook will make a five-hour drive feel like a five-minute jaunt. But the right tale? Once more you can sit back the way you did when you were child – perhaps before bed – and relax as someone reads you a story.
(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on April 13, 2014. Chris’s new novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” arrives on July 8 — including the audio version read by Grace Experience Blewer.)