I have become so accustomed to combining daily walks with audiobooks that I associate certain sections of my neighborhood with specific narrative moments from the dozens of works I listened to over the course of 2021. This curve in the path is when I found out who the murderer is; that oak tree is the one I stared at after I hit pause and contemplated some tiny morsel of life wisdom. But in between those meandering sessions, I’ve occasionally experimented with different listening habits. Can I close my eyes and listen for 30 minutes of a story without drifting into a nap? Can I find audiobooks that offer not just passive entertainment or floating lessons, but concrete self-improvement? Can I explore the fringes of the audiobook landscape until I find something that makes me rethink what an audiobook even is?
For exercises in focus, I have begun to turn to science fiction and epic fantasy — two genres I love, but have long avoided in audio form. There is something about all the interlocked plotlines and the phone book glossaries of characters that I have found hard to parse without the benefit of words on a page. It’s a lot easier to grasp a speculative universe when that universe is broken into morsels, as it is in Sequoia Nagamatsu’s HOW HIGH WE GO IN THE DARK (HarperAudio, 9 hours, 20 minutes). A full cast (including Julia Whelan, Brian Nishii and Kotaro Watanabe) reads the individual chapters that function as stand-alone, albeit interconnected short stories, set in the terrifyingly real world of an out-of-control pandemic and a rapidly warming climate.
An escape from your Twitter feed this is not; the tragedy in this audiobook is relentless. It begins with two deaths centuries apart (an early human ancestor revealed by melting Siberian permafrost; a researcher who died on the job) and the casualties only increase from there. As the “Arctic plague” spreads around the world, we are given glimpses into a dark reality where human connection and memory are all that is left (“a perpetual funeral in our heart and mind,” as one theme park employee who has to euthanize sick children describes it). About an hour in, I stopped taking walks with this audiobook because I didn’t want to cry in public. Two hours in, I thought maybe it was time to stop listening. But in between the harsh dose of dystopian reality and nonstop grief, there is poetry, as well as maybe a little catharsis. I’m glad I listened to the end, triggers and all.
As an antidote to all the darkness, Catherine Price’s THE POWER OF FUN: How to Feel Alive Again (Random House Audio, 9 hours, 15 minutes) was my experiment in self-improvement. Listening to Price’s approachable narrative, I hoped I might join the current self-help trend and, well, feel alive again. This audiobook is not marketed as a sequel to Price’s “How to Break Up With Your Phone” (2018), but it could be. Much of her advice from Ella on how to tap into playfulness, connection and flow — the three ingredients of what Price calls “True Fun” — begins with being present and tearing yourself away from your phone, a limitless source of “Fake Fun.”
But this is more than a rehashing of Price’s advice to unplug. Along with a new vocabulary comes a guide to tapping into True Fun. Listeners are encouraged to run a (hilariously named) “fun audit” to better understand what makes them feel alive and to keep a “fun times journal.” When possible, we’re told to keep an eye out for “microdoses of fun” and surround ourselves with “fun magnets.” If I found myself rolling my eyes at each new term, or at Price’s occasional presumption that her audience is all white, American and middle-class, I did take the core of her observations to heart: “A lot of what we do ‘for fun’ isn’t fun at all.”
One sure fire route to True Fun, according to Price, is the great outdoors; and THE LOST SOUNDS (Penguin Audio, 4 hours, 40 minutes), by Chris Watson, Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, might be the next best thing. A follow-up to “The Lost Words” and “The Lost Spells,” nature-centric children’s books written by Macfarlane and illustrated by Morris, “The Lost Sounds” is mostly the work of Watson, a sound recordist of wildlife around the UK At the heart of this audiobook is about four hours’ worth of sound collages built from those recordings. (Macfarlane narrates the introduction and Morris makes an appearance in a Q. and A. at the end.) Unsurprisingly, birdsong dominates, but so do wind and waves; symphonies of springtime twittering segue abruptly into the whines of a distant fox. Deep, otherworldly drones will have you searching your mind’s archive in an attempt to understand what you’re hearing, only to realize you’ve never heard it before.
Is this technically an audiobook? I don’t care. There are lessons and narrative here, even if they aren’t spelled out in words. As I listened, in an armchair, staring out a window, it didn’t lull me to sleep the way a “Sounds of Nature” playlist might; rather, it awakened my senses. It made me feel fortunate to share the planet with such an array of sounds; it made me ashamed of how often I’ve ignored them. I expect I’ll return to it again and again, not only to notice new details but as a comfort. In that way it’s an audiobook, but it’s also a bit like a favorite music album — or a beloved bedtime story.