Since I started listening three years ago, audiobooks have become one of my absolute favorite ways to read. But they’ve also changed my reading habits and improved my life in ways that I never expected. One of the coolest things I’ve noticed recently is that, over the past three years, I’ve built up an audiobook map—memories of the books I’ve listened to overlaid with where I listened to them.
I live on a small island with my dog, and I often listen to books while I’m walking her. I also garden for a living, which means I spent most of my days alone, tending to vegetables and flowers. Gardening and walking are both perfect activities for listening to books, and so, especially in the summer, I spend a lot of time reading while traipsing around the island. Because I visit the same gardens every week, and because I often go on the same walks over and over again, those places are now layered with my memories of books.
There’s a beautiful walk I often take that winds through the woods, along a pond, and through open scrub down to the beach. Every time I walk there I remember the windy afternoon I walked through the brown February grass, listening to Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. I can even remember the specific chapter I was reading on that walk, a harrowing account of Stevenson’s work with children on death row. On top of that memory is my memory of listening to Austin Channing Brown’s fantastic essay collection about faith, race and gender: I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness. Channing’s clear and heartfelt narration of those powerful essays is now a part of that landscape.
There’s another walk I often take, one that winds through a pine grove out on the moors. One fall afternoon, my dog had run off chasing a rabbit through the brush, and I stopped under a massive pine tree, waiting for her to come back, listening to the end of The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater. It was the second time I’d listened to that book, and I finished it in that pine grove before my dog came bounding back. Now, whenever I walk there, I always hear the echoes of that book, and remember how full and sad I felt when I finished it.
The gardens I work in are similarly layered with memories of books. When I walk into a garden, the last book I listened to while working there is often the first thing I think about. One of my favorite gardens is tucked away behind a line of tupelo trees, and every time I’m there, I remember the eerie and beautiful descriptions of a future sunken Bangkok in Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad. That garden also always reminds me of fresh herbs and frying onions, because it’s where I listened to With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo—specifically the part where the main character goes on a weeklong trip to Spain with her culinary arts class. In another garden, I once spent a rainy afternoon mulching a bed of blueberries while listening to the emotional ending of I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, and now I think of that book and those beautifully flawed characters every time I walk past those blueberries.
Sometimes my memories of books and places even interact with each other. I listened to I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver in the same garden where I listened to Sapiens by Noah Yuval Harari. I Wish You All the Best is a YA novel I adored about a nonbinary teenager figuring out who they are, coming out, and falling in love. The chapter of Sapiens I listened to in that garden was a deeply frustrating exploration of the role of gender in human cultures—an exploration that completely ignored the existence of transgender people. Both of those books—one I loved and one that I found alienating and transphobic—are now caught up in that particular garden.
I could go on forever, overlaying my reading life on top of the actual physical places where I spend my days. There’s something comforting and grounding about the way these memories pop up. It’s a concrete reminder of how deeply audiobooks are woven into my life. It’s also an illustration of how listening to audiobooks while walking and gardening cements books in my brain in ways I never expected. I associate books with places, and thus, I’m reminded of those books when I’m in those places. I remember details about books that I’m sure I would have otherwise forgotten, because I’m not just remembering the book, but also the way the light filtered through the pine branches, or the smell of tomatoes on my hands.
Discovering new ways to experience books is one of my favorite things about reading. I had no idea, when I listened to my first audiobook, that I was starting the beginning of a whole new map. Listening to audiobooks hasn’t only changed the way I read, but also the way I relate to my landscape. It’s a practice that deepens both my sense of where I am, and my understanding and memory of books. What a gift.