An Ode to the Audiobook

Or, the developmental history of one girl and her words

I was five years old the first time I ever listened to an audiobook. The cause was simple, my right arm was broken, and as any five year old will tell you, there is no greater evil than having to watch all the other kids play tag or hide and seek or any other energy-consuming game you are too handicapped by your cumbersome blue plaster cast to partake in. I had, predictably become fidgety, irritable and miserable to be around until, one sunny afternoon, I encountered my savior.

An audiobook of Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary.

At the time, I was still struggling to write my own name, and could hardly read something so complicated as a chapter book on my own, but I loved being read to. And here was a way for me to be read to all the time. For me to be entertained even though I couldn’t run around or play hide and seek. For me to escape, for a while, from the confines of my blue plaster cast. I listened to Ramona the Pest enough times that I could recite sections of it by heart.

Eventually the cast came off, and I was able to resume my frantic five-year-old activities, but audiobooks continued to have a profound impact on my life. I continued to listen to stories, often far beyond my reading level, and developed the vocabulary to match. I began listening to The Lord of the Rings when I was nine years old, and developed an interest in fantasy (and penchant for antiquated words and sentence structure) that I still carry around with me today. But the audiobooks I listened to growing up influenced more than just my taste and vocabulary — they kept me deep in the world of creating and imagining that are so crucial for me now as an aspiring designer. Because I was able to listen to books while I did it, and was inspired by the things I listened to, I kept at the pencil and paper long after most of my peers had moved on to video games.

Yet, as so often happens, as I grew older I began to move away from books as a hobby. I began reading primarily for school, and piling up reading lists of thick, capital “i” Important novels that would be good for my character and conversation, but that I knew deep down I would never make time for. As I spent more of my time concentrating on homework, I stopped listening to audiobooks as well. Words, which have always been my joy and solace, began to drift away from me, and with them, my other creative passtimes. I passed through my teen years reading at most two or three books a year for pleasure, watching lots of TV and drawing rarely, and feeling a perpetual, vague sense of emptiness somewhere in the bottom of my soul. Yet even then, I would wait for the week of spring break when, at long last, I could select an audiobook and an art project I had been putting off, and spend time with both. Those weeks, few and far between though they were, gave me a more profound sense of contentment than anything else in my life.

It was not until this past winter, half way through my undergraduate degree, that I truly found my way back to my audiobooks. In January, I took the long flight from San Francisco to London for a semester abroad, in the hopes of setting aside my academic frenzy long enough to refocus on the things that matter most to me. I found myself completely alone in a vast and fascinating city, with most of my daily cares and worries several timezones away. As I began to walk the streets of London and settle into my newfound calm, I realized that, at long last, I had been presented with an opportunity to reclaim the words I had lost. I promptly acquired an Audible subscription, and began my wanderings to the tune of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, a book I had been longing to read, but whose page count had continued to scare me off. The book was glorious, and the happiness I felt for being able to savor it, even more so. Since January, I have listened to fourteen audiobooks. Some, like Peter Ackroyd’s Foundation and The Tudors, to help me better appreciate the history of the streets I walked down every day. Others, like Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd and Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, novels that had been sitting in reading lists on my phone for time immeasurable. Every time I start a new audiobook, I feel again that sense of profound contentment, and am inspired to cook, to work out, to sit down and create something where before I would have mindlessly browsed Facebook. I am inspired to keep focusing on the things that matter most to me.

Now, as I settle into another new city for another set of adventures, I am listening to audiobooks on my daily commute, and beginning to think that, if I can make dents in my reading list, I can commit to another character-building exercise I have long put off: blogging. Part of reading or listening to a story for me is reflecting on it, and if the thoughts are going around my head, itching to come out, why not write them down? Thus begins the next stage in my return to words — book reviews. The New York Times I am not, but in writing down my thoughts on the words I listen to, I hope to continue reclaiming a part of myself I once gave up, and maybe find some new parts too.

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