What I’ve listened to on Audible this year.
All the Harry Potter books, by J.K. Rowling. Yup, I started in January and by May I’d gone through seven books and reached Train Platform 9 3/4 with Ron, Harry and Hermione surrounded by little ones headed to Hogwarts (oops, Spoiler Alert—though judging by all the disbelief I ran into for reading the books now, it seems every person in the world who can read already HAS read these books). I really enjoyed the books—Rowling has pulled off a real Pixar triumph: an accessible work of art in which both children and adults can find deep value and enjoyment—and I’ve been jonesing to listen to the last hour or so of the final book, from when Harry approaches the Death Eaters’ camp till the scene ends in the great hall at Hogwarts, for a good two months. A few favorites. Favorite book: Prisoner of Azkaban. Favorite character: Prof. Remus Lupin. Most satisfying scene: that last one where Valdemort and Harry circle each other, with the weight of all that story leaning in on this final confrontation. Six months of commuting was time well spent.
The History of the Renaissance World, by Susan Wise Bauer. Truth is, fiction lends itself better to audio books than non-fiction; following a plot is a more natural experience than trying to follow the dates, names, and facts of history. Even so, I like to switch between the two, especially when listening to a long series of fiction books like the Potter series. So I listened through this exhaustive review of the major cultural centers of the world at the time of the European Awakening. And, sitting here, I can’t tell you one damn thing I learned while listening. Bauer’s approach, and I’ve listened to another book by her, is to switch between cultural centers across the world, and it often becomes a succession of warlords supplanting each other. I get bored and disconnect. I guess the Renaissance World—or Bauer’s approach—just isn’t my cup of tea. I happily jumped back to the last two books of the Potter series after this.
Leaders Eat Last, by Simon Sinek. Could have been 40 pages long. I’ve really tired of obvious self-improvement books. I don’t think I’ll be reading any for a decade, at least. I think I’m better off putting that time to being attentive and kinder—to myself, to others.
Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline. I enjoyed this book, about the lure of virtual worlds over (an awful) reality, more than I expected. It made me remember me and my friends in the ’80s, which was nostalgic and warm for a bit, but I stopped playing video games somewhere around Asteroids and Missile Command (and started obsessively playing Strat-O-Matic baseball against myself, keeping detailed stats; don’t ask how you do that) and I don’t have a particularly strong nostalgia gene, so it started to curdle after a while. It’s a bit on the long side, but after reading those final Harry Potter books, it was pretty breezy.
Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehesi Coates. Moving, powerful, concise, its father-to-son triumph being that it serves both as invitation to taste of the amazements and adventures of life and a cold caution to the brutal truths that exist in this very same world. I felt all that this summer when I read it, and 100 times more after this recent election and the palpable sense of dread, vulnerability, and regression as we await the new administration. I started to read Coates’ eulogistic appreciation of Barack Obama’s presidency earlier today and I just don’t have the heart yet to finish it. If the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, it’s sure taking its fucking time. On that, I think, Coates and I would agree.
The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land, by Thomas Abridge. I read this because the Crusades are one of those things that is such a big part of the historical context of the relationship of the West and Middle East, but I knew almost nothing about it. I knew Christians had gone to the Middle East to reclaim the “Holy Land,” I knew they had been ultimately unsuccessful — but I also had heard of Crusader States. What were they? And I knew Richard the Lionhearted was an English king who joined the Crusades, but that was about it. I also knew almost nothing of the Muslim caliphates, and men like Saladin, and how that all played out. When I read about the history of this part of the world, I am reminded that we imagine ourselves past history—that somehow this teetering present can remain, poised on this very moment, forever, no matter how just or unjust the moment is — but that’s what people always think, that they are outside the flow of history, when we are assuredly in it. And those who believe themselves on top will again be on the bottom, and the reverse as well. (That’s actually the wellspring of my hope these days; history is not done with me or us.) This book was immensely helpful in clarifying my understanding of the time and place. It is long, though, maybe longer than it need be.
Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow. Speaking of long, Chernow’s work is an exhaustive recap of a most amazing, peripatetic, and brilliant life. Alexander Hamilton was so fully human — capable of the loftiest thoughts and the most amazing projects, and yet so often a victim of his own passions, poor judgment, and insecurities — as to leave me both awestruck and pitiful. How does one cram so much experience into one short life? How can someone be both so transcendent and so mired in the petty and petulant? I don’t know, but my gosh, I see why Lin-Manuel Miranda would drink deep of this Founding Father’s life. Bring even half of it to life and you have a hit. Judging by the reviews and songs, Lin-Manuel did a good bit more than half.
Born to Run, by Bruce Springsteen. The autobiography is good—candid, thoughtful, full of detail, maybe even a little masochistic—but the best part of the audiobook is that Springsteen reads it. It’s like having Bruce himself sitting in the seat of your car, telling you stories. There’s nothing like actual rueful laughter to convey, you know, rueful laughter. Lots of life advice can be plumbed from the book: take care in the people you surround yourself with; understand contracts BEFORE you sign them; know what you want and cling to it, staunchly, obsessively … my favorite though comes from his song Long Time Coming: “Yeah I got some kids of my own/Well if I had one wish for you in this god forsaken world, kid/It’d be that your mistakes will be your own/That your sins will be your own.” As a parent, as a citizen, as a human in the world, amen. (Speaking of Bruce, I enjoyed this list of his 300-plus songs, from worst to best.)
And that’s it. After looking at this, I’m going to do more shorter fiction in the coming year—and I’m committing to actually read books, with my eyes even! It’s good for your brain, says science, which I’m still a fan of. That said, I’m curious and open to ideas for my 2017 reading (and listening) list. Please use comments to provide recommendations. Thanks in advance!