Are You Listening?

All my life I’ve embraced the joys of being read to.

Hear author Judi Ketteler read you the article like one of her beloved audiobooks:


I’ve always loved to be read to. What a delicious thing it is to be told a story, the verbal equivalent of a deep scalp massage or sinking into a hot bath.

I’ve thought about this a lot, and I don’t know if having someone read you a story is the same as reading the words yourself. It’s not better or worse. It’s not lazy or cheating to be read to. It’s just different. The story may wind up in the same place in your brain either way. But being read to is its own special kind of comfort.

It’s why I’m completely obsessed with audiobooks. I must always have an audiobook on hand for listening to, with one or five more on deck. Sometimes, I invent errands to run so I can listen to my book in the car. Or I think about what running route might pair best with my current book. Does the effortlessness of the narrative warrant a flat road? Or might the suspense propel me up hills? If it’s a tearjerker, I think about which roads I can run where I’ll be least likely to encounter other runners or walkers, lest I get labeled the Weird Crying Runner.

And the narrators! It’s unbelievable how good they are. Some audiobook narrators’ voices are so delicious and perfect that I hear them in my head even when I’m not listening to a book, as if they’re narrating my day. I imagine Julia Whelan, one of my favorites, saying, Judi wakes, and hearing the chaos all around her, the kids in the kitchen, the cat having the zoomies, tucks under the covers to hide for two more minutes.

But before I had my list of favorite narrators, before Audible and Libby and Goodreads and Bluetooth in my car, I had something even better. Something I suspect set up my lifelong love for books and love for being read to: My mom, a.k.a. my OG book narrator.

The year I started afternoon kindergarten, my mom would read to me each morning. After my six older siblings left for school—the oldest would have been in college at Thomas More by then—we’d tuck into the corner and work through the stack of library books. I don’t know if I understood yet that someday soon I’d be able to read myself. I just knew that I loved the sound of her voice, combing through a story with her Midwestern lilt—not that I knew yet that Midwestern lilts were a thing—doing character voices and delighting every part of me.

After having so many kids and dealing with a full house for 20 years, Mom must have looked forward to that moment of freedom when she would have the house to herself. At the same time, I was the last one, and she never tried to rush those quiet mornings when we’d read together. I would say, “Next book!” and she would always oblige.

Once I started school, teachers became the narrators. In second grade, we sat on carpet squares as Ms. Hellman read James and the Giant Peach. In fourth grade, I looked forward to Ms. Topmiller reading Superfudge and the rest of the Fudge books each day. In sixth grade, I hung on every word of Ms. Eggemeyer reading Bridge to Terabithia. At some point, there was no more reading from teachers, except maybe in high school, when Sister Nisia read the poem “Ozymandias.” Even though I liked her, her rendition of Shelley’s blah blah blah about the empires of men was not the same music to my ear.

I missed being read to without realizing I was missing it. I never stopped reading. I never stopped being obsessed with books and words. I mean, I became a writer, so clearly the lack of people reading me stories once I became an adult caused no trauma. I’m not sure I thought about it.

And then I downloaded my first audiobook as a free trial from Audible. I was driving back from Arkansas, where I had been a resident at a writers’ colony for a week. Instead of listening to 10 hours of podcasts, I thought I’d try this newfangled audiobook book thing. Of course, audiobooks weren’t new at all. People with visual impairments had been reading books that way for years. And the library always had a section for books on tape. But they felt clunky. The thought of all those cassettes seemed overly complicated.

Now it was all digital. One click, and you could have a story in your ear.

That first time, it occurred to me only to listen to a nonfiction book, because it seemed most like listening to an NPR podcast. In fact, I downloaded a book written and narrated by NPR reporter Barbara Bradley Hagerty, called Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife. It was all about living your best life at midlife, which, if you haven’t noticed, I tend to write about a lot myself.

And did I love it! I was in second grade, fourth grade, sixth grade again, sinking into a story. Missouri turned into Illinois, and still her voice was with me. Back home again, I downloaded more books to narrate my errand-running, gardening, walks, runs, and drives.

I listened to memoirs and biographies at first: Rob Lowe and Tarana Burke and the life story of the Blackwell sisters. It didn’t take long to discover the world of fiction, performed by narrators who made me feel as if I was inside the story. Rebecca Lowman’s pitch-perfect pacing in The Last Thing He Told Me. Caroline Lee’s thoroughly enjoyable Australian accent in Apples Never Fall. Robin Miles’s emotional range in The Personal Librarian.

My list of books I want to listen to is now so long I often have the irrational thought: What if I die before I listen to everything I want to listen to? Obviously, there are many reasons I don’t want to perish. But, my god, the audiobooks! I can’t miss out.

I still work through stacks of books on my nightstand, even if I do fall asleep most nights after reading for 15 minutes. I’ll never stop loving the spine of a book, the feel of pages turning, how my eyes like to skip down a few paragraphs in tense scenes, the little game I play with how I get to control the flow of words. But a few years ago, I noticed that in adding audiobooks to the mixture I was getting through way more books and easily meeting the Goodreads challenges I set for myself.

I wrote an opinion piece, then, for a major outlet about how tired I was of the argument that listening to books didn’t “count” as reading, not to mention how offensive it was to people with disabilities, for which audiobooks represented greater accessibility. Lots of people agreed with me. But as always happens when I express an opinion, people with sticks up their butts e-mailed me to tell me how wrong I was.

There is still a notion that reading should be “pure” and that everyone should slog through Hemingway, Joyce, and Melville no matter how miserable it makes your eyes feel to do it. It’s real reading, and it builds character!

Obviously, I deleted all of the negative messages and hit “play” on Lessons in Chemistry, which was impeccable timing on my part, seeing as how gatekeeping was the novel’s main theme.

Though proving blockheads wrong is always good motivation to keep doing something, there is more that keeps me enthralled with being read a story. At first, it was because I couldn’t read yet. Because I craved special time with my mom in a busy house where everyone was always jockeying for something.

Then it was to bring some magic to the school day. To have that break. That pause. That reminder that it was still my job to be a kid. That grownups were looking out for me, and I could put my head down and listen.

And now? I would say it’s basic escapism, but that describes books in general. Certainly, it’s my love of accents and performance, from Nicole Lewis (Come and Get It) to Nicola Walker (None of This Is True). What people can do with their voice is endlessly amazing to me.

But audiobooks also represent the joy of discovering something new in midlife. Most midlife surprises aren’t good: abnormal mammograms or parents who fall and break a hip or calls from the high school that your kid is one tick away from suspension.

I’ve gotten to where I dread looking at my phone after I’ve stepped away for a while. Please don’t let me have any missed calls, I think. I assume most news will be bad news. But when my phone comes back to life and shows me my place in an audiobook, it feels like maybe things will be OK. At least for another chapter.

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