Chris Bohjalian
Chris Bohjalian: What Spoken Words Can Mean to The Soul

I’ve been touring this spring for a new book, and that always sounds way more glamorous than it is. Book tour is actually a Latin aviation term that translates roughly to, “Every seat is the middle seat.”

I won’t bore you with the daily indignities of a book tour, especially since I actually rather enjoy them: it wasn’t all that long ago that my books sold briskly, but mostly among people named Bohjalian. I’m pretty sure that I share DNA with almost every single human being who bought a copy of my first novel. (I say “almost,” because there was a book- signing event at a now-defunct store in Manhattan, and a reader browsing there took pity on my loneliness at the table and bought a copy for her daughter, who, she said, “will read just about anything.”)

And so I am always grateful to meet my readers.

In any case, one of the things that makes travel a lot easier is a good audiobook. On this book tour, I savored Tara Westover’s wrenching memoir, Educated, read perfectly by Julia Whelan, and Gabriel Tallent’s jaw-droppingly great first novel, My Absolute Darling, performed beautifully by Alex McKenna. Trust me, an audiobook makes a turbulent ride in a regional jet in the seat by the rear lavatory a whole lot more pleasant.

But I also listen to audiobooks when I am home in Vermont. I always have one in my car (often on compact discs) and one on my phone to help pass the time while doing all manner of home improvements and chores around the house. I painted the guest bedroom one February weekend this year while savoring Greg Sestero’s The Disaster Artist. Co-written with journalist Tom Bissell, the book is the story of the best, worst movie ever made (The Room), and the film adaptation was one of my favorite movies of 2017. Sestero’s narration is wonderful, and I still like to try and recreate the accent of filmmaker Tommy Wiseau.

But I don’t appreciate audiobooks simply because they allow me to “read” while doing something else. It’s not just about multi-tasking. I enjoy audiobooks because they are the latest manifestation of the human desire to listen to stories. As a species, we crave narrative:, it’s how we make sense of the world. And there is something inside us that loves to be read to. These are two separate but linked parts of the human psyche. Yes, once upon a time, we wanted to be ensconced in our mother’s or father’s lap while they read to us the wonderful stories of–for example–Beverly Cleary. (Cleary had such an impact on me when I was reading her Ramona and Beezus books to my daughter, that a key Ramona misunderstanding has a cameo in my new novel, The Flight Attendant.) But even as adults we enjoy listening to someone tell us a tale. Think of the popularity of the Moth celebrations of storytelling. Think of the ways we watch stand-up comedy–which is, at its core, nothing more than storytelling with a punch line.

Moreover, audiobooks these days are seriously thoughtful endeavors that are meticulously produced and directed. One of the most remarkable audios I’ve ever listened to is George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, which had an astonishing 166 narrators. Among them? Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, and Susan Sarandon. But even a book with a single narrator, such as Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow, is likely to be an impeccable production. Nicholas Guy Smith brings the aristocratic Russian nobleman to life in a bravura performance.

The reality is that I am still likely to have a book (or two) made of paper on my nightstand. I’m likely to have one with me whenever I travel.

But I have come to depend upon audiobooks, as well, and not simply because of the way they make a rear seat on a regional jet more pleasant or because they help pass the time while painting a guest bedroom. I love them because of the way they remind me of what stories and the spoken word can mean to the soul.

The Flight Attendant