Audiobooks Explain Things to Me

Explanation — the kind that makes you reconsider what you already know and marvel at what you don’t — is an art. It is a fine line between instruction and condescension, sufficient detail and superfluous minutiae. Listening to these three new audiobooks, at times I definitely felt like the poor soul cornered by a crypto bro at the bar, the freshman in the wrong lecture hall. But there were also moments when converging threads came together in my own understanding—of my generation, of human behavior and physiology—and made any floating frustrations worth it.

If this year’s Super Bowl halftime show made you feel old, get this: It’s been long enough since the turn of the 21st century to warrant an entire retrospective on the peculiarities of the 1990s. Chuck Klosterman reads THE NINETIES: A Book (Penguin Audio, 12 hours, 39 minutes), a collection of essays that hold a microscope to everything from grunge and the supposed apathy of Generation X to the brief craze for Crystal Pepsi (“There are many reasons not to drink Pepsi, but ‘It’s too dark’ has never been among them”) . This is a version of Klosterman I didn’t immediately recognize. Whereas his 2004 deep-dive into pop culture, “Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs,” blew my little high school mind with its balance of cheekiness and intelligence, “The Nineties” feels almost academic. And sometimes Klosterman is very much the aforementioned insufferable guy at the bar. Phrases like — and I swear this is a real quote — “the tiramisu of heteronormative befuddlement” will delight some and alienate others. And yet, I couldn’t stop listening to find out which aspect of my most formative decade he’d dig into next. Overwriting aside, here is a narrator who can make it sound reasonable to draw a straight line between the launch of the Subaru Impreza and the release of Nirvana’s “Nevermind.”

While there is some joy to be had in getting lost in the weeds, there is also relief in being brought back into the open air. For that, turn to HOW TO BE PERFECT: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question (Simon & Schuster Audio, 9 hours, 13 minutes), by Michael Schur, the comedy writer and producer behind shows like “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation.” Down to the musical cues and the audio cast (which includes the actors Ted Danson, Kristen Bell, Manny Jacinto and Jameela Jamil), “How to Be Perfect” could be considered a companion piece to the author’s recent hit, “The Good Place. ” Set in an afterlife where frozen yogurt is free and soul mates are guaranteed, the series was a result of Schur’s own quest to better understand morality. Philosophical concepts from Aristotelian virtue ethics to Kant’s categorical imperative leaked into the show, but in “How to Be Perfect,” Schur goes all in on a single hypothesis: “If we can get past the fact that a lot of those philosophers wrote infuriatingly dense prose that gives you an instant tension headache, we might arm ourselves with their theories… and be a bit better today than we were yesterday.”

Unsurprisingly, “How to Be Perfect” is very funny, his narration buoyed by interjections from the show’s cast members. And it is also very clear and approachable, two adjectives I wouldn’t think to apply to the field of philosophy. Schur, who was fact-checked and guided by the actual philosopher Todd May, would be the first to admit his summary of (mostly) Western philosophy is far from comprehensive — the audiobook begins with an FAQ that includes various permutations of “Who the hell do you think you are? But Schur also does what the Enlightenment thinkers cannot: bring contemporary, real-world context to these big ideas. The audiobook had me thinking about my everyday actions in new ways: how a phone call to my mom may or may not align with the southern African principles of ubuntu, or what Thich Nhat Hanh would think about my listening to his mindfulness teachings of him while completing three other tasks. For someone like me, who hasn’t considered questions like “Should I punch my friend in the face for no reason?” through a theoretical lens, it’s a perfect starter course in analyzing why human beings do what we do. I also learned what the heck existentialism actually is.

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