I’m always on the lookout for ways to improve my productivity, so a couple months ago I finally tried something I never expected to like: audio books. I have to keep my mind engaged twenty-four hours a day to be happy, so I’ve always listened to interesting material like NPR or Arabic news when I’m in the car or working out, but I never thought audio books would be a satisfactory substitute for reading. That, and audiobooks are expensive.
But on a whim, I checked out Audible and realized that their subscription prices actually made audiobooks affordable. I downloaded a book that I had begun reading in print, but hadn’t had time to finish: Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. I was blown away. The performance quality was excellent. Frank Muller, the narrator, has a mesmerizing style and a range of voices that brought each character to life without ever sounding contrived or cheesy.
I’d listened for less than two minutes when I realized something profound that I probably should have understood years ago: stories are meant to be shared aloud. Long before our ancestors invented written language, they gathered in caves or beside fires to regale one another with epic tales from life and from their imaginations. Something of that is still in our blood. After work each day, I rushed to my car and spent my twenty-minute commute completely absorbed in the austere frontier world of McCarthy’s creation. Hearing the language brought it to life, endowing it with power and beauty it didn’t have on the page. It helped me to better appreciate the book, and I have no doubt that hearing the music of language is making me a better writer.
Now, at the recommendation of a friend, I am listening to Thomas Jefferson: the Art of Power. The performance quality equals that of All the Pretty Horses; I can listen to narrator Jon Meachem for hours without tiring. With this book, I also discovered a neat little trick of Audible that is a godsend for those of us who never have enough time: you can listen to a book at 2x or 3x speed. With this particular book, I found that 2x matched my need for time efficiency with audio quality; the book goes fast, but not so fast that the narrator’s wonderful voice degrades.
In short, I’m sold. Next on deck is that literary masterpiece that was unquestionably meant to be performed out loud: The Iliad.