WASHINGTON, D.C. - Being read to is one of the great joys of childhood. And reading to a child is one of the treats of being a parent. Over the past few years, I’ve discovered a way to recapture this cozy delight: audio books.
Audio books are oases for grownups. They double or even triple the amount I “read.” When I am too tired to read a book, I can listen. On a long car ride, I can listen. In boring morning hours in the gym, I can listen. When my attention span is fried by long days with short bits of digital downloads, I can listen.
So I thought I might start the summer by recommending some audio books I have loved.
My favorite kind of listening is a big ambitious work of history. I like to combine the listening with brief online expeditions to see pictures of the players, maps or reference materials.
The ultimate was “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” by William L. Shirer. I have had the book for at least 20 years, but was daunted by its 1280 pages. So I listened and learned. It turns out I retain nearly as much from listening as reading.
Supplemented by re-reading important passages and looking at maps and photographs, I hold on to even more. And it is incredibly fun and engrossing.
“Napoleon: A Life” by Andrew Roberts was fascinating and following the battles with military maps was like playing with toy soldiers as a kid. I had the same fun with a couple of Civil War books, such as James McPherson’s “The Battle Cry of Freedom” and the first volume of Shelby Foote’s “The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 1: Fort Sumter to Perryville.” I am saving volumes two and three for the winter.
This might be some kind of heresy, but audio books are a fine way to tackle classics that are gathering dust on The Great Shelf of Ambitious Reading. I lost myself listening to Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” and W. Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage” (though a little less).
Re-reads are almost better. I hadn’t picked up “Great Expectations” since sophomore year in high school and listening to it last year was familiar yet fresh.
I read Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” in high school, too, and I even understood a chapter or two. Listening was the only way I was going to tackle it again and it was worth it, though hard. “Anna Karenina,” however, was so absorbing it was almost a guilty pleasure.
When a great narrator reads a great book, it is like great theater – except you don’t have to share the experience with an audience. Tom Parker’s reading of “The Adventures of Augie March” by Saul Bellow is that. “Augie” is an urban, Jewish Huck Finn and Parker’s voices and accents are brilliant and hilarious. The slang is awesome.
Same with Ralph Ellison’s “The Invisible Man” read by Joe Morton. Together, these two audio books are an incredible tour of American cities in the middle of the 20th century.
The novelist Donna Tartt gives a gorgeous performance reading “True Grit” by Charles Portis. “True Grit” should be read by more people and Tartt will help that cause. Her love for the main character, Mattie Ross, oozes. Portis, by the way, is underrated. His “Dog of the South” is as entertaining as an audiobook can be.
In the same vein, listening to Lee Horsley read “Lonesome Dove” by Larry McMurtry is simply one of the great pleasures an adult can have. I’d fight over it. The “prequels,” “Dead Man’s Walk” and “Commanche Moon” are also great listens.
The sequel, “Streets of Laredo,” well, not so much. But John Randolph Jones’s reading of “The Last Picture Show” is p’ert near as good as Peter Bogdanovich’s film version (or try them together).
When it comes to crime fiction (my chosen escape) and light stuff, I’ve found that if I’ve liked an author, I’ll like the audio books, too.
I rarely indulge because I like giving in to a page-turner and then turning the pages all night, literally. (For the record, I disdain e-books except in emergencies.) But I’ve enjoyed listening to books by John Grisham, Michael Connelly, Carl Hiaasen, Stephen King and Greg Iles.
I prefer reading good, contemporary fiction to listening. But Tom Wolfe’s novels make for good listening, particularly “My Name is Charlotte Simmons.” It is so funny you might need an adult diaper if you’re listening on a road trip.
In the past year or so, I’ve also liked Tartt’s “The Goldfinch,” Kate Atkinson’s “Life after Life” and “Capital” by John Lanchester.
Regardless of what I like, listening is a wonderful way to know more books – and that’s a wonderful way to unclutter your mind in a cluttered world.