In these quarantine days, I miss the casual conversations. Gone are the spontaneous chats on the sidewalk or over cubicle dividers, in cafes or across playgrounds. For all of us, life is transformed. For many, life is quieter. Personally, this retreat from daily socializing feels somewhat familiar. Last year, I withdrew into my home to nest with my newborn daughter.
Thankfully, I had audiobooks to rescue me from the sleep-deprived tedium of keeping an infant dry, fed, and mostly content. Then and now, narrators of audiobooks helped me feel less lonely.
Nesting with a newborn, while supremely cuddly, also feels isolating. Like many new parents, I was often “nap-trapped”—sometimes literally pinned down under my snoozing baby. Even when freed from the couch, the baby’s sleep schedule kept us tethered to home. It was a cozy but lonely time, one when I longed for adult conversation. I’d go for any conversation, really, as my baby cycled through her limited vocabulary of vowel sounds. To fill the blurring hours of feeding, diapering, and shushing, I turned to audiobooks.
My audiobook habit was not new. I became an audiobook listener back when I commuted on Washington’s Metro. Drawn to the ability to walk while I devoured a story, I discovered the 45-minute trek to work was the perfect time for one or two chapters. Audiobooks were the highly anticipated bookends of my workday. I missed my stop more than once when engrossed in a plot twist. As I walked bustling sidewalks and crowded subway platforms, the story in my ear was like an invisible shield, buffering me within my story bubble as I dodged elbows or crammed uncomfortably close to a stranger on a rush hour train.
Inviting the World In
After I had my daughter, audiobooks became a new kind of escape. Instead of enveloping me in an intimate audience of one, audiobooks invited the world in. As my daughter played on the nursery floor, I was swept into a fantastical heist in Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows, the band of friends given voice by a cast of charming narrators. Doing dishes while the baby slept, I was drawn into a rural noir as JD Vance evoked accents of East Texas in Attica’s Locke’s Bluebird, Bluebird. While I pushed the stroller through the park, Neil Gaiman read me his own Norse Mythology with the hushed excitement of a bedtime story. I could still be present for my baby, but now literary voices joined us, familiar as friends, spinning epic adventures in the afternoon’s lull.
There are also practical advantages to audiobooks when you’re caring for an infant. In those first months, with my daughter was always on my breast, wedging a physical book onto my lap alongside her required a dexterity I was too tired to attempt. In the moments when my hands were free, there were dishes to wash and laundry to sort. Listening to stories enlivened the chores. Reading, like sleep and regular showers, would have fallen to the wayside in those first months without audiobooks.
But beyond the practicality of the audiobook, I craved its human voice. In a good novel, the narrator always holds me rapt as they unfurl a story. On paper or read aloud, the story is transporting. I, like so many readers, have traveled the globe and alternate universes while warmly ensconced on my couch. Now though, I appreciate the human performer who gives the story life.
A Shared Experience of Listening
Audiobooks remind me of the shared impulse to gather round a storyteller. For millennia, humans have come together to hear tales that sound fabulous but ring true. Reading aloud, narrators command the power of tone and pause, breath and pace that have spun enthralling stories for generations.
Narrated stories harken back not just to oral traditions but also to our own beginnings as readers. For me, listening to audiobooks recreates my first experience of the written word, when my parents would read from children’s books. Their voices brought life to the words I could not yet read myself.
Like the readers of my first stories, the audiobook helps fuel my imagination. The narrator shades the characters with personality in each choice of tone and accent. The unique timber of a voice, inflected with excitement, or suggestive of a smile, brings characters to life in a way that is distinctive yet familiar. The narrator’s interpretation offers a riff on the way I might imagine each character in print. The narrator’s vocal choices are constant reminders of why we need stories: to introduce us to different worlds, yes, but also to hear echoes of our own hopes and heartaches.
These days, so many of us are separated from family and friends. The loneliness of nesting with a newborn feels more universal. Now more than ever, audiobooks remind me that reading only seems solitary. Every story is an invitation to share the writer’s experience, to understand their world, or to imagine a new one together. Read aloud, the invitation feels personal, like a story told by a friend. In these quiet times, these stories and their narrators have kept me company.