Why you should care
Because, as Kerouac put it, the road is life.
Growing up, when my family packed up our Volvo station wagon for summer trips to South Carolina or Florida, we had a routine to ensure the long rides didn’t bore us. We weren’t much for road-trip license-plate games. Instead, we played sound system pingpong. Simon and Garfunkel for Papa Bear, Abba for Mama Bear, Beastie Boys — often shut off early — for Brother Bear and the soundtrack to Annie for me. Then back to Dad, for Paul McCartney and Wings … etc.
Music helped, but in the years since, I’ve realized the reason I favored show tunes on the road is that they carry a narrative. I couldn’t read in the car, but I could listen to a whole story played out in song. As an adult, on road trips and through two years of commuting two hours a day on California’s Highway 280 to and from work, I acquired a taste for audiobooks. I’ve never been an auditory learner, but trust me, it just takes the right few to get you hooked. These four are the best way in.
Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace, by David Lipsky
Rolling Stone assigned David Lipsky to the ultimate literary road trip (yes, even better than Dean Moriarty’s): Follow DFW on the book tour for his magnum opus, Infinite Jest. After Wallace’s suicide, in 2008, Lipsky published the unedited transcripts of the conversations. If any book was meant to be read aloud, this is it. If listening to it doesn’t make you tear up on the highway, it will at least give you a version of Wallace more accessible than the footnoted, anxious prose for which we remember him. (The film version of Lipsky’s book, The End of the Tour, is excellent, but not a patch on the audiobook, IMO.)
His Dark Materials trilogy, by Philip Pullman
The audiobooks of these so-called young adult novels are narrated by Pullman himself, with a full cast voicing the characters. Necessarily so, because The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass are vertiginous stories whirling through multiple universes, juggling complex questions of theology and science all the while. With the occasional splash of music and the earnest-voiced children who play the main characters, the trilogy feels like a radio play — a medium most of us aren’t familiar with in its original form, but one worth reviving.
Dreams From My Father, by Barack Obama
If you’ve been missing the 44th POTUS’ baritone, consider revisiting his most romantic self. Obama narrates his own memoir, which was commissioned shortly after he was elected the first Black editor-in-chief of the Harvard Law Review. Listening to Dreams, you can tell he knew he wanted to be someone. But at this point, that someone was an author. A young Barry became a community organizer in part to gather the scraps of what he hoped might be a future novel. Dreams is a reminder that the president, who lunched in his final weeks in office with Junot Díaz and Zadie Smith, is an alluring literary voice in his own right.
Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
When MacArthur fellow and beloved short-story author Saunders undertook writing his first novel, most of his fan base — your correspondent included — were already drooling in anticipation. The drool spooled out even faster when it turned out that Saunders, who normally narrates his own audiobooks, decided he needed a little help. Lincoln in the Bardo is set in the graveyard where young Willie Lincoln, the president’s son, is newly buried. In addition to Willie and the gang of colorful ghosts dwelling in the in-between place that Tibetan Buddhists call a bardo, Saunders’ novel contains hundreds of other characters — spirits unable to settle into their final peace, historical voices drawn from slave memoirs, the graveyard gatekeeper’s notebooks and academic tomes. Those characters are voiced by Parks and Recreation’s Nick Offerman, memoirist David Sedaris, and actors Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle and Lena Dunham, among others. Saunders’ book is genre-bending, a fascinating object. Voiced, it’s theater of a kind I’ve never before experienced.