Through the 1960’s and 70’s and until his death in 1985, Hyman Winik commuted five days out of seven to his office at Brookhaven Textiles, located on the 10th floor of 1412 Broadway in Manhattan, at the northeast corner of 39th Street, where the phone number was 212-695-0510, chanted continually by the switchboard operators in the lobby as they plugged and unplugged the trunk lines. “Oh-five-one-oh, may I help you? Oh-five-one-oh, may I help you? Oh-five-one — shoot, lost ‘em.”
From our house outside Asbury Park, New Jersey, the trip to work was 55 miles; it could and often did take three hours door to door. Despite his repertoire of shortcuts and bypasses, there was no way to avoid the final, curving stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike that led to the Lincoln Tunnel tollbooths, always filled at that hour with five lanes of motionless cars and trucks.
If only this man had lived to own an EZ Pass.
By yelling math problems into the back seat, by paying us a quarter an hour to do bookkeeping tasks, by letting us use the holy adding machine in our pretend games of Store and School, my father raised us to love numbers. Like him, my sister is an accountant; I use numbers in my work too, but less for math than for conjuring, as demonstrated above.
One commuting innovation that Daddy was around to embrace, at least in an early, awkward form, was the audiobook. After his carpool fell apart — The Colonel retired, Mark Ellentuck moved away — he became one of the first customers of Books on Tape, a company founded by Olympic oarsman Duvall Hecht in 1975 as a mail-order rental service for unabridged audiobooks on cassette.
The tapes went back and forth from our mailbox at 7 Dwight Drive in long, white cardboard boxes, return postage included. I wish I could remember more titles; the only one I’m sure of is War and Remembrance, by Herman Wouk, and that only because I mentioned it in an essay I wrote about my father in 1988.
About fifteen years after his death, when I began commuting on Interstate 83, I picked up the audio habit, first on CD, then on an iPod mini (does anyone else remember what an ordeal it was if you lost your place in a book on an iPod mini?), finally and still, on my iPhone 6. I sometimes listen while doing housework or exercising, but I don’t love either of those as much as listening in the car.
For someone who used to spend whole road trips compulsively calculating and recalculating the miles remaining (these days supplanted by continually comparing the estimates provided by three different GPS programs), the fact that a couple hundred miles can go by without my noticing it feels nothing short of miraculous.
I also love that you don’t need headphones in the car. This is an area where I’m out of sync with the modern world: I don’t like headphones. I find them ungainly and claustrophobic. I want the sound outside my head, not in it.
And what else could create a bright side to traffic jams?
Audio has helped me get through classics I couldn’t conquer in print. The Alexandria Quartet, for example. I’m not saying I liked it, just that I got through it. Has anyone listened to Moby-Dick, 21 hours and 20 minutes? I’m concerned that this could prove the exception to the rule.
There are books that are better in audio than they are on paper. If you don’t think that’s possible, listen to The Help, with a different and perfect reader for each of its narrators.
One of the gifts of audio is the opportunity to hear the author read the story him or herself. I just listened to Louise Erdrich do LaRose — what a treat to hear her speak the dialog with the subtle regional accent of her reservation characters. Others in this category are Angela’s Ashes, read by Frank McCourt; The Light of This World, read by Elizabeth Alexander; Dreams From My Father, read by Barack Obama, and sure, why not: Bossypants by Tina Fey and Why Is Everybody Hanging Out Without Me, by Mindy Kaling.
If you haven’t yet heard Mindy’s Ben Affleck/Matt Damon shtick, the time has come.
Once in a while, there are books that are ruined. The narrator of Where’d You Go Bernadette? uses a little girl voice for eighth-grader Bee that really drove me crazy. Oliver Sacks may have been too ill to read his memoir On the Move, but why use a narrator with an American accent?
My favorite audiobooks are those I consider “candy” — pure escapist deliciousness, of the light or dark variety. In this category are Eligible and American Wife, both by the great Curtis Sittenfeld. The first is a retelling of Pride and Prejudice, the second a fictional biography of Laura Bush. Traffic-jam magic, both of them.
Though I normally am not interested in designers and brand names, Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend, by Kevin Kwan, hilariously detailed studies of the lifestyles of Singapore billionaires, totally sucked me in. The audios feature gifted narrators doing all the different American, English, and Chinese accents. It’s Jane Austen meets Bret Easton Ellis meets Ruth Reichl.
I love The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, by Anton di Sclafani, which brought back to me all the sweaty, gothic intensity of teenage sexuality. I can’t wait to listen to her new one.
Nobody’s Fool, Straight Man, Empire Falls: take Richard Russo on your next road trip. He’s one of the great American storytellers, and so damn funny. As soon as I finish this Edna O’Brien I’ve got now, I’m listening to his memoir, Elsewhere, which he reads himself.
Recently I listened to The Astral, by Kate Christensen, about divorce in Brooklyn. The narration takes you deep inside the head of poet Harry Quirk, who has been pitched out by his wife after she concludes he is sleeping with one of their closest friends.
On all my best road trips with my daughter Jane when she was younger, we were listening to a book —John Green’s Looking for Alaska, John Grogan’s Marley and Me, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being A Wallflower. Somewhere in the middle of The Book Thief, she abandoned me, and these days she puts in earbuds and listens to Sufjan Stevens.
Drumroll, please, as I announce my favorite audiobook of all time, the one that took over my life because I couldn’t stop listening to it. It is The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski. Of all the books about dogs I have read, and I have read a lot of them, this one touched me most deeply. At 21 hours and 39 minutes, it’s longer than Moby-Dick, but nonetheless I hope to listen to it again someday.
Maybe with my dad. If they don’t have audiobooks in the afterlife, I ain’t goin.
University of Baltimore professor Marion Winik is the author of First Comes Love, The Glen Rock Book of the Dead, and other books. Visit marionwinik.com to learn more and to sign up to receive an announcement of this column each month.