I’m so used to combining daily walks and audiobooks that I associate certain sections of the neighborhood with specific narrative moments from the dozens of acts I’ve listened to over the course of 2021. That curve in the path is when I find out who the killer is; That oak tree is the one I stared at after I paused and thought about a small morsel of life’s wisdom. But in between those meandering sessions, I sometimes tried different listening habits. Can I close my eyes and listen to a 30-minute story without drifting into a nap? Can I find audiobooks that not only offer passive entertainment or passive lessons, but offer tangible self-improvement? Can I explore the fringes of the audiobook scene until I find something that makes me rethink what an audiobook is?
As for focus-focused exercises, I’m starting to turn to science fiction and epic fantasy — two genres I like, but have long avoided in audio form. There’s just something about all the interlaced lines and phonebook glossaries for characters that I’ve found difficult to parse without making use of the words on the page. It is much easier to understand a speculative world when this universe is divided into crumbs, as in Sequoia Nagamatsu How Far We Go in the Dark (HarperAudio, 9 hours, 20 minutes). The entire cast (including Julia Whelan, Brian Nishi, and Kotaro Watanabe) reads the individual chapters that act as standalone, albeit interconnected, short stories set in the terrifying real world of an out-of-control pandemic and a rapidly warming climate.
This is not an escape from your Twitter feed; The tragedy in this audiobook is relentless. It begins with two deaths separated by two centuries (an early human ancestor was revealed by thawing permafrost in Siberia; a researcher died on the job) and the losses only increase from there. As the “Arctic Plague” spreads across the globe, we are given glimpses of a dark reality where memory and human memory are all that remains (“a funeral lasting in our hearts and minds,” as an amusement park employee who must be euthanized describes sick children). After about an hour, I stopped walking with that audiobook because I didn’t want to cry in public. After two hours, I thought maybe it was time to stop listening. But between the harsh dose of dystopian reality and constant sadness, there is poetry, perhaps a little catharsis. I’m glad I listened to the ending and the teasers and everything.
As an antidote to all darkness, Kathryn Price The Power of Fun: How to Feel Life Again (Random House Audio, 9h, 15min) It was my own experience of self improvement. Listening to Price’s sweet novel, I was hoping to join the current self-help trend, and to feel alive again. This audiobook is not marketed as a sequel to Price’s movie How to Break Up With Your Phone (2018), but it could be. Much of her advice on how to tap into fun, connection, and flow — the three components of what Price calls “real fun” — begins with being present and removing yourself from your phone, an endless source of “fake fun.”
But this is more than a paraphrase of Price’s advice to turn off the electricity. Along with the new vocabulary comes a guide to making use of True Fun. Listeners are encouraged to run a ‘fun proof’ (funnyly called) to better understand what makes them feel alive and to keep a ‘fun time journal’. When possible, we are told to keep an eye out for “small doses of fun” and surround ourselves with “fun magnets.” If I find myself striking at every new term, or in Price’s casual assumption that her audience is white, American, and middle-class, I take the gist of her observations seriously: “A lot of what we do” for fun “isn’t fun at all.”
One surefire way to get into True Fun, according to Price, is with the great outdoors; And Missing Sounds (Penguin Audio, 4 hours, 40 minutes), Written by Chris Watson, Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris, it might be the next best thing. A follow-up to Lost Words and Lost Spells, nature-centric children’s books written by MacFarlane and illustrated by Morris, Lost Voices is mostly the work of Watson, an audio recorder for wildlife across the UK that is at the heart of this book The audio is about four hours of collages created from those recordings. (McFarlane narrates the introduction and Morris appears in Q. and A. at the end.) Not surprisingly, the sounds of birds dominate, as do the winds and waves; Springtime tweeting symphonies suddenly erupt in the whine of a distant fox. Deep drones from another world will have you rummaging through the archives of your mind trying to make sense of what you’re hearing, only to realize you’ve never heard it before.
Is this technically an audiobook? I dont care. There are lessons and narration here, even if they are not spelled out in words. As I listened, in an armchair, staring out of the window, sleep didn’t calm me the way my Nature Sounds playlist might; It awakened my senses. It made me feel so lucky to share the planet with such a group of voices; It made me feel ashamed of how many times I ignored them. I expect to come back to it again and again, not just to notice the new details but as a convenience. In that way it’s an audiobook, but it’s also a bit like a favorite music album — or a beloved bedtime story.