When I was a boy, I loved being read to. I remember night after night when I was in kindergarten and first grade, my mother reading to me. First, it was poems from Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verse (yes, I do love to go up in a swing so high into the sky so blue), then A.A. Milne’s verse, When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six (James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree was not the only one to take very good care of his mother, I’ll have you know), and then, glory of glories, the two Pooh story books. To my four- and five-year-old mind, these books were a glimpse into a much bigger (and a bit stranger) world. By the middle of first grade, my mother had cast away stories as stories and moved on to Uncle Wiggily, a rabbit with a deep and obvious moralistic streak who told stories with titles like “The Story of the Boy Who Skated on November Ice Despite His Parents’ Warnings and Who Didn’t Die but Did get Very, Very Cold and Wet.” This may be an exaggeration, but not by a lot. Uncle Wiggily was a propagandist, and I let my mom know she could read to my little sister if she wished, but as a literate man of letters and six years of age, I could take care of my own bedtime reading.
When I was a parent, I loved reading to my daughters. As a single parent with three girls with a five-year spread, I had to choose wisely and spice up the reading through the use of “cool kid points,” which I awarded arbitrarily based on each girl’s answers to either literal or inferential questions. For instance, when we were reading The Golden Compass, Libby, then four, would earn points for saying the main character’s name, Meri, then seven (and spelling her name Mary, by the way) would demonstrate mastery by explaining why Lyra was hiding in the scholars’ retiring room closet, and Becca, nine, would need to predict why the scholars were trying to poison Lord Asriel. Honestly, I was sad when the girls, one by one, chose to read books or comic books at bedtime, and hope someday to have children to read to again.
Now that I’m an older (but not old) man, I love to be read to. Unfortunately, my mother has long since died and Sam (is a dog) can’t turn the pages of a book, much less read the words on them. Today, I listen to audiobooks.
As with ink and paper books, I’ve usually got four or five audiobooks going at a time, so I can listen to whatever fits my mood. For instance, right now in rotation are:
The Sympathizer by Viet Than Nguyen. A literary thriller—if that’s even a category—following the life of a Vietnamese Communist who becomes a South Vietnamese aide-de-camp to a corrupt general. Beginning in 1954, when the narrator is nine, it jumps back and forth between the States and Vietnam. There’s not really a ton of action—but the characters are really intriguing.
The Early Middle Ages (Great Courses Series) by Philip Daileader. Also called the Dark Ages, from roughly 400 to 900 AD, it’s fascinating to see the devolution of the Roman Empire into smaller, less organized kingdoms. With each new ruler,the glory that was Rome seems more and more like a fever dream.
Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving. I admire John Irving. I envy John Irving. When I’ve gone to hear him read, I liked John Irving. When it comes to his novels, though, I either LOVE John Irving or want to cast him aside, like a date returning to an empty table. For instance, The Water-Method Man is one of my favorite all-time novels, Garp and Hotel New Hampshire were almost as loved. As for the rest? Meh. This goes into that pile, and I will likely delete it from my phone instead of listening to the remaining 20 hours.
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Hurari. Hurari, who wrote Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, is one of those popular historians (like Bill Bryson and Jared Diamond) who seem to KNOW so goddamned much it’s scary. That each of them is also a clear and entertaining write makes their work a joy.
Jesus Before the Gospels by Bart Ehrman. Here, Bart Ehrman combines what psychology believes it knows about human memory (it’s very fallible and very malleable), oral traditions (they change over time) and cultures that rely on oral traditions (they don’t much care about accuracy—they want a good story) with the fact the Gospels were written long after Jesus’ death by people who’d never met the man (or The Man) in Koine Greek, a language none of Jesus’ disciples knew. For this former Baptist man of the cloth, the conclusions aren’t as important as the ride to get there.
Looking over this list, I sound like a very wise man indeed, or at least a man who’s trying to listen his way to wisdom. Soon, I’ll share my list of most-listened-to podcasts, which may disabuse you of this notion.