Audiobooks to distract you during tough times

By Sebastian Modak

  • Dec. 22, 2020

As with my social life, my travel plans and most traces of inner peace, something destructive happened to my attention span this year. With nothing but time on my hands, I still found it difficult to focus on the written word. Book in lap, my mind wandered to the latest coronavirus numbers; as if by some unholy instinct, I’d put the book down and blankly scroll through Twitter. Enter the audiobook. While washing dishes, or on walks through the neighborhood or, yes, even while doomscrolling, the voices of some authors and narrators started feeling like those of the friends I missed. For those just starting to dip into the world of audiobooks, these recent releases may persuade you to keep listening.

Barack Obama’s voice has the power to calm a cat at its most anxious: Over the course of a 22-hour drive, mine only stopped yelling from her carrier in the backseat when A PROMISED LAND (Random House Audio, 29 hours, 10 minutes), the first volume of President Obama’s White House memoir, was playing over the car speakers. It is a lengthy recording — 10 hours longer than the audio version of the New Testament — but Obama, a master orator, is skilled at keeping the listener’s attention. It’s the content, of course: the fly-on-the-wall scenes of campaign conversations and congressional dealmaking. But it is the delivery, too. A nimble code switcher, Obama is comfortable being the poet, as he describes the majesty of the Hindu Kush from the window of a helicopter; the professor, as he delves into Keynesian economics; and the openhearted family man, as he recounts the death of his grandmother. Still, his accent game, as he attempts direct impersonations of everyone from Kenyan relatives to Ted Kennedy, could use some work.FRANK BRUNI: A less conventional take on politics, cultural milestones and more from Frank Bruni.Sign Up

With many of us not taking the long flights or daily commutes conducive to longer listening sessions, stories the length of podcast episodes are perfect for our times. ZIKORA: A Short Story (Amazon Original Stories, 1 hour, 15 minutes), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s first fiction book since “Americanah,” is short enough for one sitting, but will stick with you long after. The main narrative takes place in an American delivery room, as a Nigerian woman brings a child into the world, while texting an absent father and confronting a hard-nosed mother. But Adichie manages to pack far more than that story line into 75 minutes. There are also entire family histories, meditations on nostalgia (“time spent on remembering, time lost on remembering”), and commentary on the challenges faced by Black mothers in the United States. The actor Adepero Oduye as narrator shifts seamlessly between characters, and I hung onto her every word.

It is a different kind of challenge to channel a voice as singular as Kurt Vonnegut’s, but Lucas Hedges rises to the occasion in LOVE, KURT: The Vonnegut Love Letters, 1941-1945 (Random House Audio, 4 hours, 25 minutes). The book is a collection of sometimes tender, often hilarious missives that Vonnegut sent his first wife, Jane Marie Cox, through college, during his service in World War II (he spent months as a prisoner of war) and after his return, when they got married. Hedges treats Vonnegut’s letters — found by their daughter, Edith Vonnegut, who also narrates part of the book — like the script to an experimental one-man play, rattling off the stream of consciousness poetry of a new infantryman (“Army life is damn near sexless; dammit, I want sex for breakfast”) and the persistent pinings of a barely passing college student (“I’ve got to convince you to love me”) with equal enthusiasm.

It can be hard, at times, to follow every word of every letter in the audio version; Vonnegut enjoys jumping between forms and playing with the possibilities of language within the constraints of correspondence. But the end result is a kind of collage that sounds like a writer finding his voice and falling in love. Now if only we could hear Cox’s side of the exchange.

Vonnegut’s letters showcase a kind of experimentation — limitless and free of judgment — that Jeff Tweedy of the band Wilco, and the author-narrator of HOW TO WRITE ONE SONG: Loving the Things We Create and How They Love Us Back (Penguin Audio, 3 hours, 8 minutes), would approve of. The main premise of Tweedy’s latest book is in the title, but many of his points could be applied equally to a variety of creative endeavors: namely, how to stop giving yourself excuses and start just doing the thing. Unsurprisingly, this is a book that particularly lends itself to the audio form, including Tweedy’s own recordings of in-progress melodies and song sketches throughout. “I’m not trying to write a self-help book,” the singer and guitarist says early on, but he may have done just that anyway. In between writing exercises and advice on how to structure a day is a guide to rediscovering the joys of creating that we all felt as children when we would make stuff without wondering if it was any good.

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