Listening to books became a more regular thing for me last year. I’ve got a monthly Audible subscription and download a new book each month. I favor biography and history for audiobooks. I’m not sure why, but I’m not as interested in listening to fiction. I would rather read it.
It does feel kind of like cheating to “read” books by listening to them. But the oral tradition of storytelling goes way back before the printed word ever existed. So, I’m treating my recent audiobooks obsession as getting back to our ancient roots sitting by a fire listening to the tribal storyteller.
Plus, it’s a very efficient way to consume more good books in an otherwise busy life. I listen as I drive and as I walk the dog and while doing work in the yard. Some of these books were such a delight that I was inclined to drive the long way or go slower or sit in the driveway for a few minutes to get to a natural break in the story.
And I wore my dog out while listening to the truly remarkable books on Lincoln and Grant I list below. “Come on, Mosley, let’s go for another long walk and hear how Mr. Lincoln wins the nomination for president…”
I was even extra enthusiastic about working in the yard: “Honey, I’m going to go outside and mow the lawn and learn how General Grant captured Vicksburg. See you in a couple of hours…”
Here are my favorite audiobooks from the past year:
- Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin – So good! I was already on team Lincoln, my favorite person from history, but this book took my affection for him even higher. Goodwin (who wrote a couple of other great books I’ve enjoyed about the Kennedy family and the Roosevelts) makes a fairly familiar story come to new life by weaving in the stories of the key people around Mr. Lincoln. The narrator was excellent, and the story, though we all know how it ends, was so moving. Got a lump in my throat at his death. 41 hours of audiobook/history-nerd bliss.
- American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant by Ronald White – What a nice surprise. I knew very little about Grant other than what everyone knows about his military accomplishments and that his reputation seemed a bit sullied by his tenure in the White House. This book rocketed Grant up near the top of great Americans in my view. He was a leader of unparalleled character, steely determination, and endearing humility. He came practically out of nowhere to be the indispensable man in securing the Union’s victory in the Civil War. His leadership as President is underrated. He was ahead of his time in pressing for civil rights and opposing racism while standing up to the Ku Klux Klan. He had the misfortune of being surrounded by some unscrupulous friends and subordinates, though, who took advantage of his trust. The story of his race to write his memoirs to save his family from financial ruin while he was dying of throat cancer and spurred on by his friend Mark Twain… Remarkable. And those memoirs turned out to be one of the great pieces of autobiography in American literary history. (Also, the narrator for this audiobook was particularly good. A good narrator makes a big impact on the listening experience.)
- The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt – A little bit of Roman history and philosophy inside the story of a Catholic Church bureaucrat from the Middle Ages who discovers a long lost and transformational manuscript.
- The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution by David Quammen – I knew little about Darwin’s life before listening to this relatively short biography. It focuses mostly on the slow and careful approach he took to grasping his theory and then, finally, sharing it somewhat reluctantly with the world. Darwin comes across as a genuinely thoughtful and kind man who loved his wife and children dearly. His meticulous methods in his work allowed him to see patterns in nature that led to arguably the biggest breakthrough in the history of science.
- SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard – This one starts slow in detailing what can be known about the founding of Rome and its early history. But it picks up steam in describing the Republic and the beginnings of the empire.
This one wasn’t a recent listen, but I can’t mention audiobooks without a plug for one of my favorites: Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin. Martin reads it himself and even plays the banjo between chapters in telling the story of his career as a stand-up comic. Aside from sheer entertainment, it’s worth a listen as a primer on what it takes to craft a great career.
Currently, I’m back and forth between two audiobooks: Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow and Henry David Thoreau: A Life by Laura Dassow Walls. The Washington biography was a slog early on. He’s not as endearing as Lincoln or Grant. But it’s picked up as the story moves into the Revolutionary War. I’m putting Thoreau on hold until I finish with Washington.
Reading has shaped my life more than any other habit. When I was frustrated at the lack of time I was making for books last year, turning to audiobooks salvaged my year as a reader. I still read traditional books and keep a novel on my nightstand. But getting more books into my life through audiobooks has been a delight.