In 2005, I checked out a battered cardboard box of CDs from my local library. Over the next week on my long commute into the city, I listened to an abridged version of The Woman Next Door by Barbara Delinsky.
It was my first audiobook, and my first Barbara Delinsky.
It wouldn’t be my last of either.
I fell in love with audiobooks, though at this time they were mostly called Books on Tape. You could listen to them only on multi-volume cassette tape or CD sets. It’s possible you could’ve downloaded them onto your iPod at this time—I didn’t have one, and don’t remember. But the iPhone was still two years away, and the idea of Audible—or downloading anything without wires to a device—was still mostly the stuff of science fiction novels.
Physical audiobooks were expensive compared to paper books—still are—but my local library was full of free ones.
I listened to every CD collection that interested me in the library, and then I moved onto the cassette tapes. My car didn’t have a tape deck, so I bought a portable cassette player, and I would just set it on the passenger seat and play the tapes without using my car’s stereo system.
What I would’ve given for Bluetooth back then (if I’d had any idea what it was!)
For me, genre fiction has always been the best audio experience. I don’t want a complicated novel with a long list of characters where I might need to flip back and check who’s who. I also don’t want meaty nonfiction where I might want to write something down or look something up.
While everyone else grumbled about their commutes, my secret was that I was having a blast.
I remember handing my badge to the parking lot attendant with tears streaming down my face while listening to the end of Nicholas Sparks’ True Believer. I hunted human criminals with Eve Dallas in J.D. Robb’s In Death series, and supernatural ones with MacKayla Lane in Karen Marie Moning’s Fever series. I practically lived under Stephen King’s dome with Barbie and Julia, a novel so long it required 30 discs. (And still my favorite audiobook.)
I was so surprised by a scene in Sandra Brown’s Play Dirty that I scraped the side of my car against a concrete jersey barrier while crossing the old Hulton Bridge. (If there’s one scene I wish I would’ve written, it was the heroine biting the hero’s thumb in Play Dirty—a master class in how to build sexual tension in a romance novel.)
I’ve listened to every leg of Jack Reacher’s journey, a good chunk of Sandra Brown’s backlist, and a wheelbarrow full of personal non-fiction essays, my favorites by Lisa Scottoline and her daughter Francesca Serritella.
I can still remember exactly where I was driving when Scottoline read aloud that her mother, a long-running character in her life and the essays, died.
I felt like I’d lost a friend.
The local library couldn’t keep up with my pace. I joined a service called Book Lender that was basically like the original Netflix, but for audiobooks. They’d mail me a physical audiobook, and when I was finished I’d send it back and they’d mail the next one in my queue.
It was expensive—$30 a month—but I’ve rarely spent money that gave me more satisfaction.
According to my reading log, my high-water mark of audiobooks was 2008, when I listened to 38 audiobooks. I regularly listened to 30+ books a year from 2008-2014.
Then I got a new job with a severely shortened commute. Instead of driving an hour plus each way, I was out of the house and at my desk in under twenty minutes.
It was great—more time, less money spent on gas, less wear and tear on the car—but had one huge unintended consequence—a drastic reduction in my audiobook listening.
I cancelled the service. I couldn’t get through enough books to justify it. And I began losing interest in the books, as a 15 minute chunk of listening just wasn’t enough to get into the story.
Then I found podcasts, which were better for short chunks of time.
I tried listening to audiobooks while exercising and taking walks, but it wasn’t quite the same. For me, audiobooks are somehow all tied up with driving.
Then the pandemic hit, and my anemic commute came to a complete stop. In 2021, I listened to a mere five audiobooks. Five!
I use Audible now, and the process for listening has never been easier, the selection never vaster. And yet I’m listening less than ever.
If ever do return to the office, or ever again have a punishing commute, at least I’ll have a huge backlog of audiobooks to look forward to.