Radio Silence

My father doesn’t understand how I can keep up on current events, as I don’t watch television news and I don’t get a print newspaper at my home.

“How do you know anything that’s going on?” he asks.

I used to tell him that I got much of my news listening to NPR in the car, but that’s not true any more. I stopped sometime last winter. I’m more prone than I like to admit to feeling a little ragey behind the wheel (OK, a lot ragey), and listening to the news–even NPR news, which feels less inflammatory than any other–only exacerbated that.

I tried listening to music stations, but the inane patter of the DJs also made me ragey. And driving is boring. Or it forces me into my head in a way I’ve had a hard time tolerating in recent years. Or the internet has rewired my brain such that I can no longer peacefully endure a lack of mental stimulation. Or I have ADHD that’s getting worse. (Seriously. I just took a self-quiz. Yikes.)

For whatever reason, my old ways of being in the car just weren’t working, so I started listening to audiobooks when driving. My friend Kate recently asked me to recommend some, and over-thinker that I am I soon realized that I couldn’t do so without some tips, caveats, and explanations:

1. The narrator is everything.
If you don’t like the narrator, it doesn’t matter how good the book is. The narrator will ruin it for you. Xe Sands was one of the narrators of Chuck Wendig’s The Wanderers, and I almost returned it before I’d hardly started because her inflection drove me crazy. I finally accepted it as part of the character she was reading–it did fit her–but I sampled another book she narrated and her way of reading was exactly the same and it kept me from buying it. The other reader of the Wendig book, Dominic Hoffman, was one that I mostly liked, but he’s also now on my (Probably) Do Not Listen list. I recently finished The Starless Sea, and although there is much I love about his voice, I’ve realized from that one that I can’t stand the way he reads women. They all have a slightly British accent, and they all sound simpering and breathless, whether they are badass scientists (Wanderers) or badass otherworldly beings (Starless Sea). Which brings me to my second caveat:

2. Complex structures aren’t great for an audiobook format. The Starless Sea is comprised of 6 different recurring books with characters and plots that intersect over places and times, and time is a construct the author is playing with so the multiple narratives aren’t linear. I now want to get the print version of the book and read it; I know I missed big chunks of it because I was consuming it in bits and pieces and I couldn’t re-read. Multiple times I told myself to give up on it and return it because I was just sort of lost in it, and I got tired of so many things smelling or tasting like honey and various twee old things and things that don’t really have a scent/taste but that sound kinda literarily hip when you are told that they do, but I wasn’t sure if my irritation was really with the writing or just the challenge of taking the story in through my ears rather than my eyes. I did finish it, though. Tommy Orange’s There, There is another example of a book that might not be the best candidate for audio. It is a powerful, beautifully-written book and the audio version has fabulous readers, but it has many narrators and characters, and they re-appear throughout the story. Multiple times I wanted to be able to flip back to an earlier part of the book to remind myself of something that came before. I suppose you might be able to do that, sort of, with an audiobook, but it feels too cumbersome, even if I wasn’t driving while listening.

3. The longer the book, the better. I tried getting audiobooks from the library, but I couldn’t figure out how to make that work well for me and I’m not very motivated to because I have a Gold Monthly subscription to Audible. I pay $14.95 each month for one credit. Most books cost more than $14.95, so I get a bit of a discount by having the membership, and there are often sales and free books, as well. But, I only get the one credit a month and I’m on a self-imposed austerity plan, so I do pay attention to the length of the book. I recently finished Stephen King’s The Institute, which clocked in at just about 19 hours. That was a good, long listen, which took just about a month for me to consume. Every time a student used to choose a book based on the number of pages, it felt like a tiny piece of my soul died, but I guess I’m now that kid.

4. Fluff books and audio go together like cheap wine and cheddar cheese. Which is to say: Kinda wonderfully, especially if you’re thirsty or hungry and too tired to cook and aren’t looking for a nutritious meal. As a person who spent her formative years immersed in the worlds of Pine Valley, Port Charles, and Llanview, I am not averse to high drama, shallow characters, quick action, and a little suspense. I’m not ashamed to admit that I like a soapy, fast-paced, easy-to-follow story where all I really want to know is what happens next, especially when I’m listening while merging onto the freeway during rush hour. Some recent favorites in this category: Ruth Ware’s Death of Mrs. Westaway, Kate Morton’s The Lake House, Linda Holmes’s Evvie Drake Starts Over, Taylor Jenkins Ried’s Daisy Jones & the Six, Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone, and any of Liane Moriarty’s books read by Caroline Lee. There are a few historical novels I’d also put in this category: Lilac Girls and The Alice Network are two recent ones I liked well enough.

5. Non-fiction can be just as good a listen as fiction. I prefer fiction. My audiobook habit is about escaping the world more than entering it, but there have been a few non-fiction titles that have a quality of story to them I really enjoyed. Favorites include Lori Gottlieb’s Maybe You Should Talk to Someone (which has a pretty strong soapy element to it), Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (which is only 3 and a half hours, but so good). My hands-down favorite in this category is Michelle Obama’s Becoming, a book I resisted because it was such a thing when it was published, but it’s one of my favorites in any category. Hers is an amazing story, well-told, and I can’t imagine anyone else reading it–so I’m glad she is the narrator.

6. There is a sweet spot, but it can be hard to find. Books with easy-to-follow structures, some good drama, a little (or even a lot) of literary weight, and a narrator I like take me to it. In this category, I’d put: Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again, Sally Rooney’s Normal People, Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Jean Kwok’s Searching for Sylvie Lee, (which I almost put on the soapy list, but it’s got a bit more heft to it than the others there), Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. The only drawback with any of these is that sometimes I’d really like to savor the language a bit, or go back and re-read some passages.

But what about my dad’s concern–which is really a concern that I am somehow not paying enough attention to the world and am not aware of all that is wrong? Is my new audiobook habit just another manifestation of my privilege, a way of turning away (because I can) from engagement with the barrage of injustice and corruption that we’re all living with and through?

Maybe. But maybe not.

I’m not going to connect all the possible dots for you that are informing my thinking about this question, but I can list some other questions that I think are useful to consider as we all figure out how to consume information and be OK(er) in the world. (One more caveat: I am fully aware that in many regards, the world/my country has always been as bad as it is right now for many people. I know that my relatively recent understanding of that is a sign of the protected places I’ve occupied. In my thinking/search for coping strategies, I’ve been turning to those with much longer and deeper experience of living with/through hard things than I’ve ever had.)

Questions to consider:

  • What does it mean to be informed?
  • How can we stay informed and engaged without playing into the hands of those who are using media to manipulate us and control our political systems (this is a global question, not just a US one)?
  • How do we both stay informed/engaged and stay mentally healthy?
  • How is our current media landscape changing our brains and how we process information?

Things aren’t always what they appear to be on the surface. Contrary to what my dad fears, my turn away from broadcast media and local news outlets is not a way of sticking my fingers in my ears and singing la-la-la-la-la while Rome burns. And it doesn’t mean I am uninformed; I still keep up on the news through trusted print resources whose aim is to adhere to standards of ethical journalism. Listening to audiobooks rather than broadcast news is simply one way of preserving my well-being so that I can stay aware and informed and engaged. I’m not burying my head in the sand; I’m simply recognizing that miring myself in muck isn’t going to do any more good to heal my country of its sins than wearing a hair shirt would.

So: If you have audiobook recommendations, please do share. I’m all ears.


Fuck these guys! Really. But also: Let’s all understand what they’re doing so we can stop playing into it:

Evidence that both/and is more valid than either/or. You can be pissed and righteous about all that is wrong AND still be joyful. In fact, maybe that’s the best thing we can be:

This exploration/explanation of self-care blew my mind open:

This is about the relevance/importance of reading poetry, but I’d extend the ideas in this to any kind of imaginative literature:

This is not perfect, but it’s one of the best tools we’ve got:

I’m glad to see this idea more and more:

I really want more people to understand the differences between these things:

This historian’s analysis of each day’s events has become indispensable to me. She posts daily on Facebook, but if you’re off FB (as we should all probably be), she also shares through a newsletter:

This is your brain on the internet:

This is old-ish, but relevant:

Radio“Radio” by Under The Sun is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

5 thoughts on “Radio Silence

  1. Marian says:

    I would LOVE to be able to listen to audiobooks, but I have had no luck on the few occasions I’ve tried. (“Wait, what?” as I discover I’ve zoned out yet again and don’t have a clue what’s going on…maybe I should do a test for ADHD as well.) I do really appreciate seeing a list of what you’ve been reading! I’m just over halfway through Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism and I highly recommend it. It actually addresses some of the items in this post, in particular the problems with the Internet and (obliquely) the difference between self-care and self-soothing (i.e., distractions).

    I also don’t subscribe to a newspaper; I listen to CBC Radio and read the news on their website. I think it’s vital to keep mentally healthy, and to do that you’ve got to have a break from everything that’s going on. I don’t think that’s ignoring the problems. I also think that self-care is vital, but I’ve always kind of disagreed with what seemed to be sold to us as self-care, so I’m glad to see people are now differentiating between self-care and self-soothing. For me, cleaning is self-care while mindless scrolling is self-soothing. Only one of those things actually helps me care for myself, though.

    On joy as a means of resistance, I agree, but with a bit of a caveat: I think we should probably reexamine what those things are that give us joy and then put an emphasis on being content with reasonable (small) joys that don’t actually worsen the situation in the world. With 7.8 billion people on the planet, there simply isn’t the room or resources for each of us to have supersized materialistic (or even experiential) joys. (I know you would never advocate for that, but I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who might use the “joy as resistance” framework to continue to justify their unsustainable lifestyles.)

    • Rita says:

      I have had that “wait, what?” experience while listening to audiobooks (I had that a lot with The Starless Sea), but only with the ones that haven’t really hooked me. I think one of the reasons I like them is that they take me out of my brain. For me, zoning out = deep in thought; that’s often a place of exhaustion for me, especially if the hamsters are spinning. You’ve mentioned Digital Minimalism several times now, so I placed a hold on it at the library. I’m #10 in line, so it might be a bit, but I’m looking forward to it. I really appreciated an earlier book he wrote on career building.

      And yes, the self-soothing vs. self-care is really helpful to me. It’s helped me understand why the social media version of it has so irritated me. A bubble bath doesn’t fix what ails us! I also appreciate your caveat about joy. Given the ways of capitalism, I could totally see the idea co-opted and used to sell us all on things that bring us “joy.” I think when people talk/write about joy as resistance, though, they mean something much more fundamental than experiences/things we might buy. I think they’re talking about taking joy in each other and in the world around us. They mean: Don’t let ____ steal your joy–which, to me, means your love, your contentment, your peace, your laughter. I’m understanding in new ways that I can be torn up about some things at the same time I filled with joy about others. Rejecting binaries can apply to so many things.

  2. Kate says:

    First, let me just say thank you for the MANY suggestions for audiobooks!! I’m leaning towards some fluff. I like cheap wine and cheddar cheese.

    As for news, I stopped watching the regularly after 9/11. I just couldn’t handle the same vivid heart wrenching sensationalized images day after day after day. It didn’t feel like news – it felt like rubbernecking. Up until recently, I’d tune in for a debate or election or special broadcast here or there but that was about it. I mostly listened, but since Kavanaugh’s hearing, I haven’t watched or listened to any. I just don’t. I read my once a week paper (either The NY Times, Washington Post, or Wall Street Journal. I have subscriptions to all three because I feel like it’s important to support actual reporting.) I’m still aware. I’m just not curled up in a ball crying.

    Which leads me to the self-soothing/self-care part because I firmly believe some days those things SERIOUSLY overlap. I also think what looks like self-soothing for some, can be required self care for others because the difference between a night of insomnia and 8 solid hours of sleep for me is a bath right before I go to bed. (I’m basically still a toddler.)

    Finally, I am HERE for joy. I think we are living in a time when both/and are necessary and I’m grateful that you keep pointing out that we don’t need to be defined to that binary.

    • Rita says:

      I am here for joy, too. 🙂 Also agree that self-soothing/self-care isn’t a fixed line. Something can be one of those some days and the other on another day. I’m still figuring out which is which. And trying to figure out some kind of balance. I struggle to make/find time for all the different forms of self-care that are important. All the more reason to turn off the news and limit time on social media. Like you, I have subscriptions to national news publications, and those (along with NPR online) are where I mostly get my information. I also think it’s important to support good journalism by paying for it. I am so thankful for our press, in spite of its limitations.

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