Over the past few years, I’ve become (to my great surprise) an avid listener of audiobooks. What initially began as a means to keep me awake and alert during a series of near-monthly drives back and forth from Virginia to northern New Jersey has become, over time, what I prefer to listen to in almost all circumstances: on my morning run, on my daily commute, during the several short walks I take across campus throughout the week, and even occasionally at day’s end, as I lay in bed trying to unwind before falling asleep (with my headphones in, this is a far less intrusive means of me “reading” for my slumbering wife).
While I enjoy listening to the occasional newly-released and best-selling novel, I’ve noticed that my audiobooks of choice lately have veered toward three categories: historical fiction (defined broadly here to include both recent novels that take place in a historical setting and older, often classic works of literature important to understanding a particular moment or era of history); historical non-fiction covering periods, places, and peoples beyond my immediate academic interests; and historical non-fiction within my specific areas of scholarly focus I worry I won’t have time to sit down and read in a traditional manner.
Audiobooks, then, have become a means of helping me keep up with scholarship outside of early America (including periods and subjects I will likely need to teach at some future point), introducing myself to historical subjects in which I am peripherally interested (including the history of sport, the history of food), and of listening to popular and academic histories that fit under the broad umbrella of “early American history” that I might not find time to read in the immediate future.
While part of the reason that my audiobooks of choice all veer toward history of some sort is surely attributable to my general nerdiness, it is also a result of a greatly expanded audiobook offerings over the last few years. While popular histories by the likes of David McCullough have long been available to listeners, the volume of more academic books published by university and trade presses alike has increased greatly in the very recent past, thanks to large companies Audible.com (owned by Amazon) and more narrowly-focused University Press Audiobooks alike.
Not all historical monographs or syntheses work well as audiobooks, of course. It can be frustrating to listen to a book and not be able to stop, flip to the endnotes and check the reference for a quoted or mentioned source (the Audible app does helpfully allow you to virtually bookmark and add a note at any point while listening), and dense, lengthy tomes are often as difficult to slog through while listening as while reading (especially when the reader is as dry and boring as the text). The importance of non-jargony writing and compelling narrative, then, is perhaps even greater for listeners than for readers and, in my experience, biography and narrative history work particularly well for audiobooks. Recent favorites in the field of early American history include Marie Arana’s biography of Simon Bolivar, Andrea Stuart’s family history Sugar in the Blood, and (so far) Rachel Hope Cleves’s Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America. Beyond early American history, I’d recommend to anyone interested the audio versions of Jennifer Burns’s Goddess of the Market Ayn Rand and the American Right, Jeffrey Picher’s Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food, and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. And recommendations in the historical fiction genre include James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird and Lawrence Hill’s Someone Knows my Name (both of which are lively read by talented narrators).
How about you, readers? Do you listen to historical audiobooks, academic or otherwise? What are some of your favorites?