We were in our 30s, my brother and I -- him closer to 30, me closer to 40 back then -- and planning a drive north through California. We need a book-on-tape to listen to, I told him. This was before iPods, before CDs, and audio books came only on cassettes.
Like me, he was a fan of fiction and left it to me to choose the book.
If you haven't tried to find common literary ground with another person, books that you're both happy to listen to simultaneously, let me tell you that it isn't easy. But Larry McMurtry is a crossover author, one who could bridge the gap between contemporary literature and popular fiction. At the time, his "Lonesome Dove" and "The Last Picture Show" were still popular, and I chose one of his less-known novels for my trip with my brother.
All went well until the narrative hit a sex scene. Ever watch porn with a sibling? You may not see body parts in a book, but the descriptions of sex are far more detailed and explicit than what you hear and see on the screen. We made a stop for gas and never hit the play button again. And thus came the first of Marjie's rules for choosing an audio book: Check out whether a book has sex scenes. Never listen to a book with sex scenes with anyone you don't want to sleep with.
Over the years, I've listened to hundreds of audio books, both on road trips and the daily commute to work. I've learned that some of the finest literature is a poor choice for audio, and some books I wouldn't waste my scarce reading time on are perfect for listening.
The key difference between reading and listening: Whether you're confused, enchanted, or rapt, the reader keeps reading at the same pace, the story keeps moving forward, and you can't keep rewinding to repeat what you missed or didn't understand.
Having made plenty of poor choices, I've developed my own guidelines for choosing audio books.
*Don't listen to a book known for its wonderful use of words. While you're savoring a particularly nice turn of phrase, the story has kept moving and you've missed it. I made the mistake of listening to "The God of Small Things," by Arundhati Roy, who makes lovely use of words. I repeated phrases to myself, pictured the detailed images her words created, and repeatedly missed whatever immediately followed. Eventually, I stopped listening and bought the book.
*Ditto for books that are exceptionally thought provoking. While you mentally debate what you’ve just heard, the reader keeps reading.
*Don't pick a book with a lot of key characters or by an author known for complicated plots. You can't flip back through the pages to remind yourself who is the sister and who is the wife, or which spy recruited a particular informant. Listening to “A Game of Thrones” on a road trip to North Carolina, I had trouble keeping the characters and their relationships straight and started to fall asleep. I finally pulled over and looked up the story on my iPad. John LeCarre's spy novels have wonderfully complicated plots and relationships; his books are perfect for readers, too complicated for listeners.
*Remember that you can’t skip over dull parts of an audio book. A well-written history or biography is particularly good as an audio book (“The Killer Angels: A Novel of the Civil War” by Michael Shaara is one of the best ever), but an author like David McCullough (“John Adams,” “The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914”) who apparently feels the need to account for every scrap of paper he came across in his research, becomes unlistenable because you can’t skip the ponderous, repetitious passages.
*Choose a book that engages no more than 50 percent of your brain. You -- or whoever is driving -- need the other half of your brain for driving. A book that feels lightweight or uncomplicated when you're reading it is probably just right for listening. A lot of detective novels and spy thrillers meet these criteria. My go-to list for listening includes authors Michael Connelly, Daniel Silva, Tony Hillerman, Sara Paretsky and Louise Perry.
The Millennium Trilogy (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” etc.) and “The Hunger Games” were terrific to listen to. I was so entranced by the first book in the Hunger Games trilogy that I missed my freeway turnoff and ended up doubling back. But the consistently best books I listened to, thanks to Jim Dale, the best reader ever, were the Harry Potter books.
All that said, here in no particular order are the best books I listened to in 2012:
“The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach
“Beautiful Ruins” by Jess Walter
“State of Wonder” by Ann Patchett
“Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn
“Where’d You Go Bernadette” by Maria Semple
“Wishin’ and Hopin’” by Wally Lamb
“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot
“Wild” by Cheryl Strayed
“My Life in France” by Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme