I Am Not Your Blowing Wind: Audiobooks and the Endless Road
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I Am Not Your Blowing Wind: Audiobooks and the Endless Road

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | August 2, 2012 | Comments ()


The miles never disappear beneath the wheels fast enough.

You can drive the highways instead of the Interstates, leave behind the eighteen wheelers only interested in the fastest time to the end, wind through the hills and fields forgotten by all but those who work them. It's prettier country, soaked with the texture that's left behind after the rough glitz of fast food joints and motel chains is ripped away and restapled on to wherever the Interstates were slashed across the terrain. The Interstates are the way to go for speed, they're industrial sculptures of concrete and steel, blasted on the wings of dynamite through all but the most monolithic obstacles tossed up by the land.

The highways though, those routes of faded asphalt laid down again and again over the old roads that were birthed by foot and hoof, they trace the terrain like a lover's hand. They are infuriating though, they will always take longer than the giant roads. They take a crooked path, and make you brake down for the small town speed traps just when you seem to be getting up to speed. If you need to be a thousand miles away by tomorrow afternoon, come hell or highwater, then the last place you want to be is on those little highways. Every one stop light town that slows you to twenty-five, every turn in the wrong direction as the road follows the river instead of leaping it at first contact, every damned baby boomer puttering along at forty-five in their big-as-a-house RV through an interminable no-passing zone, every little lost second will slowly drive you mad, until you start looking for the blue and red shields that will catapult you back up to seventy-five with a half dozen lanes to pick from.

But even if you don't have a place to be all that fast, the highways will drive you as mad as the Interstates. For all the poetry and prose spilled about the scenic byways and the American passion for the road, it all turns to ash as your mind runs through well worn ruts for the hundredth time, you can't force yourself to sing along to another song no matter how much you love it, and the coffee jitters wage a losing war with dipping eyelids. You'll feel the sneers lift your lip at every sign for a podunk town and the scenery will be just one more thing between you and watching HBO in the next hotel room before you drag yourself up to do this for another day.

There's a mentality, a groove to find, in which your mind stops choking itself and starts listening and watching. I've always found it in audio books.

The first I ever remember listening to was a radio drama reproduction of Star Wars. Twelve years old, thirty hours of road left to the mountain top, and that's what made me put my book down, a first for me as a passenger in those days. I watched the world go by, in a trance, a meditation. There was a magic to these words, such that I could read while still seeing the world. It was like a blind man finding he could see. I listened to it again on the way back after our week camping. And then made copies of the cassettes before taking it back to the library.

The next was a twelve cassette history of World War II, and that's the last I remember in particular until I was old enough to be the one driving instead of riding. The first summer I lived alone, commuting ninety minutes each way to my first real job, I found by happenstance an audio book rental place on the first day driving into the office. I read a dozen books that summer by proxy, hardly noticing the hours disappearing into the void of Los Angeles traffic. Audible.com became a lifesaver around 2005 for me, a book a month as part of the package. My iPod is hardly used for music, it's two-thirds full of books instead.

And that's when the line between reading and listening to books began to fade. I don't recall in particular whether I've read or listened to certain books that I own both sorts of copies of. Not everyone likes them; Mrs. SLW hates listening to them. Her point is fair: she want to read them in her own voice, in her own head. She doesn't want the interpretations of the narrator overlaid on her reading.

For me though, I find that I consume the books better aloud. I have a tendency to read too fast, so that as a book gets more and more interesting, I read faster and faster and risk sliding into skimming, picking up the raw narrative but losing the dance of the words. Audio books keep me from doing that, moving along at their own rhythm and speed, squeezing a delicious tension as the story mounts without allowing the release of reading faster.

There are two audiobooks that have been embedded in my mind though, the great ones that I return to over and over again on roadtrips over the years. The unabridged Gulag Archipelago, is one of the most powerful books I have ever read, and its meditation on the human cost of totalitarianism told over the hours and hours as the miles slip by is an experience of sheer dark poetry, leaving me soaked in deep thoughts by the end of the day.

The first four volumes of Stephen King's Dark Tower are similarly moving, though in a different way. Great books in their own right, narrator Frank Muller truly makes the characters his own, unbelievably giving distinct voices to Susannah, Roland, and Eddie. His slow growl is how I hear Roland in my head, his Brooklyn jabber is how I hear Eddie Dean in my own head. It's a magnificent performance, and one tragically cut short by a motorcycle accident so that he couldn't keep working as a narrator on the final three books of the series.

The miles will drive you mad before you make it an hour away from your home. I've found that listening to voices helps.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Kati

    James Marsters has done an outstanding job with the Harry Dresden series. Be sure to avoid the latest in the series, though - a scheduling conflict kept Marsters from doing the readings. The narrator they chose to take his place...I cannot listen to him, and never made it past the second chapter.

    Has anyone else found an audiobook to be impossible to listen to because the narrator wasn't a good match for the material?

  • pissant

    Not everyone likes them; Mrs. SLW hates listening to them. Her point is fair: she want to read them in her own voice, in her own head. She doesn’t want the interpretations of the narrator overlaid on her reading.

    I totally understand where she is coming from. Similarly, I won't watch a movie of a book I enjoyed unless there is an extremely good reason for doing so. It destroys and permanently replaces the visuals I have in my head (which aren't even all that good). I don't have much experience with audiobooks, but I actually sought out Steve Martin's reading of his autobiography Born Standing Up because I wanted his interpretation. Obviously, they are an exception, but have you tried seeing if Mrs. SLW might enjoy an autobiography read by the...uh, biographed(?)? I know Bill Clinton did a reading of his autobiography...

  • Dandabelle

    Will Patton reading...well anything, but especially Alas Babylon and the Dave Robicheux novels is absolutely amazing. Completely transports you into the text.

  • Sinnh

    leaving my lurker stage just to say that my first introduction to audiobooks was frank muller narrating the dark tower. both good and bad, i was instantly hooked on audiobooks (and could not believe how impressive a narrator could be) but i haven't found another narrator that can live up to muller. i aquired several other audiobooks just because he was the narrator. all the pretty horses is another good one by him.

  • seemless

    I like audiobooks, but definitely *not* for driving.

    1. Noisy little car. And that was before the muffler blew. I'd have to have it at ear-shattering volume to actually hear anything coherent.

    2. I drive like an asshole. I'm not too proud to admit that, yes, I *did* get my license out of a box of Crackerjack.

    Seriously, I drive distracted even when all I'm doing is driving. I drive like a brain-dead moron. I do my damdest to reduce the hazards to everyone else, and that includes not trying to follow plots, subplots, lovely language, description, or any of the other things I love books for.

    Music is fine for this, even my beloved opera. Miss a song? Can't figure more than every 10th word? No sweat. It'll come around again, I'll hear it some other time, etc. Doesn't bother me in the least to have music screwed up by horns blowing, total lack of attention (was that a fun. song other than that single ? Oh look, a bird!), whatever. Do not do that with books. CAn't do that with books.

    However, when I've got a stack of handwork (hems, buttons), or a needlework project in progress, oh yes. Audiobooks. Love'em. After all, I don't embroider with my ears, and the mind is totally free to listen and follow deeply.....

  • sgw

    I agree with some of the commenters about Jim Dale - the entire Harry Potter series is just fantastic on audio - and about Sarah Vowell. My one problem with her "Assassination Vacation" is that it's only available abridged on audio (cd, anyway), but it still, at 6 cds, is wonderful to listen to (I've reread AND relistened to it several times, usually listening and then skimming through the book after each cd to see what might have been left from the abridgement.) I only have a 3 minute commute (each way) to work, so it sometimes takes days to get through even 1 cd if I only listen in the car - but even at only a few minutes each day, I still get my reading in and have found some new authors I'd never tried. (Also recommend Dean Koontz's "Life Expectancy" - terrific narration and a really scary but fun story.)

  • KatSings

    I used to use library audiobooks to stand my hour plus commute to work after college. LOVED it. I've been contemplating doing it again, even though my commute is generally only a half hour each way. It's so much better as a way to pass the time (and stay awake!).

  • dizzylucy

    I love listening to audiobooks in the car. I only have a 13 mile commute, so anytime I have to go somewhere far and am in the middle of a good book, I actually look forward to the drive.
    I think a narrator can make or break a book though, regardless of its content. I've started a few that had such horrible narrators - either flat and dull, or too whiny and overacted, and I couldn't continue. The good ones though can really make the words magic.

  • lowercase_ryan

    The Phoenix Public Library has had a Digital Library for a few years now where you can download E and audio books with your library card. Forget paying for stuff. It's an amazing service and one I imagine is available in most cities now.

    Best audio book I've consumed: The Kite Runner. Reading it can't convey the beauty of the words and the language. It's a whole other experience entirely.

    and World War Z was pretty bad-ass too.

  • dizzylucy

    NJ libraries have that too, and it's been fantastic to use. You get 5 books at a time, for 7 or 10 days, and I put them on my ipod so I have them for as long as I like. When I first discovered the service, I was downloading like a fiend.

  • lowercase_ryan

    The only problem here is that here are only a certain number of digital copies available. So as more people find out about the service, the demand just grows and grows. There are huge waits for some of the better titles now, which really blows.

  • dizzylucy

    Mine too, anything brand new instantly has a huge waiting list, but unless I'm in a rush to read it, I don't mind waiting.

  • KatSings

    I'm having that problem with Discovery of Witches. :-/

  • annie

    Beautiful. Audiobooks are usually what gets me through an hour at the gym. Anansi Boys is still my fave with its brilliant writing and the brilliant narrator.

  • cydeleida

    I have a long (50-60 minute) commute, so I always have an audiobook in the car. Anansi Boys is one of my favorites. The Graveyard was also very good, Gaiman narrates that one himself. They're a wonderful, under-rated pleasure.

  • TheOriginalMRod

    I am constantly listening to audiobooks, my commute can be anywhere from 25 minutes to an hour, and I'd much rather listen to books than music most of the time. I can tear through books listening to them, when I try to sit and read I inevitably fall asleep so audio just happens to be the way to go for me.

    Jim Dale reads the Harry Potter books and they are a real treat, he has the best voice. So does Neil Gaiman, I would listen to him read the phone book. And David Aaron Baker reads the Dean Koontz's Odd Thomas series fantastically. On the other hand, I tried to listen to a book read by Lauren Bacall and all I could hear was her dentures flopping around... no so good.

  • Rochelle

    I avoided a couple of the Bush Administration years by listening and relistening to Jim Dale read the Harry Potter books. Later I tried for a Jim Dale 24/7 narration by watching Pushing Daisies and then listening to Harry Potter, but it got to be too much like psychosis.

  • Enarra

    I joined Audible in 2002, but only started purchasing books in 2003. Since then I have amassed a collection of just under 300 audio books and turned many a friend and family member into a listener as well. Obviously I'm a huge fan. My personal favourites are Ender's Game, and the first 3 of George R. R. Martin's a Song of Ice and Fire which were my first Audible purchases and by far still the most masterful for their narration. In agreement with Rochelle, Neil Gaiman's are also quite special (both for the novel and the narration).

  • Rochelle

    I already love to drive, but the combination of audible, my kindle, and a well read book is making this the best driving summer yet. I recommend Richard Kadrey's Sandman Slim books, and anything by Neil Gaiman or Sarah Vowell.

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