By Sebastian Modak
Welcome to the golden age of audiobooks. Maybe it’s because podcasts have given us an insatiable thirst for audio storytelling; or because companies like Audible and Libro.fm have made it so easy to amass digital listening libraries. Whatever the reason, we have finally reached an understanding that no, listening to a book instead of reading one does not amount to cheating. And no, audiobooks are not just some lesser form of a print book. Given the right story, the right narrator(s), the right production, audiobooks can be so engaging that it’s hard to imagine absorbing their stories in any other format — even on a page.
Take the work of David Sedaris, the humorist whose writing broke into the mainstream in 1992 with the help of radio. While he has become a household name for his essays — hilarious snapshots of life’s absurdities — he is perhaps even more beloved for his readings of them. As he himself loves to point out, his voice, razor-thin and instantly recognizable, often gets mistaken for a woman’s. His comedic timing is perfect without being expected, and his use of expletives is as judicious as it is creative. All of this is on full display in his latest volume, A CARNIVAL OF SNACKERY (Hachette Audio, 17 hours, 8 minutes). It is his second published collection of diary entries, after 2017’s “Theft by Finding,” this time spanning 2003-20. Here his reflections alternate between the tiniest of minutiae (the characters on “The Wire” are all “litterbugs”) and major events both personal and in the world at large (his sister Tiffany’s suicide, the election of Donald Trump). There are vulgar jokes (unprintable) and whip-smart one-liners (“They say that cigarettes take 10 years off your life, but they’re the last 10 years, so who wants them anyway?”) that will have you reaching for pen and paper before they’re gone. There may be some disappointment over his choice to bring in a second narrator, the British comedian Tracey Ullman. She reads all the entries written in England, Australia and Ireland, infusing the narrative with regional accents Sedaris presumably could never do. With anyone else’s diaries, casting a second reader might create an effect like encountering a split personality. But not here, perhaps because no one has a narrative presence quite like Sedaris’s.
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Along with the diary, another format that lends itself to the auditory medium is, perhaps obviously, the oral history. In written form, these can feel slightly clunky, like reading a movie script. In audio, they can become collages of voices, bringing listeners into a world not their own. That’s the case with BOURDAIN: The Definitive Oral Biography (HarperAudio, 11 hours, 28 minutes), by Laurie Woolever, Anthony Bourdain’s longtime assistant (or “lieutenant,” as the traveling chef, writer and television host called her). If some of this sounds familiar, it’s because this is the second book Woolever has released since Bourdain’s death in 2018. (It’s also the second one I’ve written about.) Bourdain, with his nuanced worldview and his insatiable appetite for all things unfamiliar, has inevitably become a kind of patron saint to travel writers like me. But I came into this listen with some trepidation. Were we — after a handful of books and a documentary — venturing into full-on hagiography? Are we better served letting his legacy speak for itself?
Turns out that this, a chorus of voices coming from the people who knew him the way the general public never could, was exactly what was missing. Woolever interviewed 91 people for this book, including family members, public figures, the friends Bourdain immortalized in “Kitchen Confidential” and the members of his crew who traveled the world with him. Many of those people record their own sections of the audiobook, and the end result is perhaps the most complete and complicated picture of Anthony Bourdain to date. In those voices are tributes to his talent, recollections of his charisma and explorations of the darkness that he tried so hard to keep at bay through (at various points in his life) drugs, travel, jiu-jitsu, love. It is, in many ways, an anti-hagiography: a collection of voices building the image of not a saint, but a human. When the audio faded after the final words, I started rewatching “Parts Unknown” from the beginning. It’s the first time I’ve felt ready to do so since his death.
For a very different oral history, but one that is equally bolstered by using real voices, there is THIS IS EAR HUSTLE: Unflinching Stories of Everyday Prison Life (Random House Audio, 10 hours, 17 minutes), by Nigel Poor and Earlonne Woods, the creators (with Antwan “Banks” Williams) of Ear Hustle, the first podcast to be produced from inside a prison. It launched in 2017, when Poor, a visual artist, and Woods, who was then incarcerated in California’s San Quentin State Prison, collaborated to “share the everyday stories of life in prison and use them to reveal the connections between those inside and outside.”
“This Is Ear Hustle” combines the show’s origin story (neither Poor nor Woods had any prior podcasting experience) with new entries from current and former prisoners. The storytelling is conversational and profound, sometimes hilarious, often heartbreaking. Considering how voices can communicate emotions and thoughts that often go unsaid, it’s hard to imagine reading, instead of listening to, a book like this. And considering the United States’ addiction to mass incarceration, it should be required listening for all Americans.
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