Road trips in America have long been associated with music, and for good reason: Nothing captures the freedom of the open road better than soaring anthems and iconic melodies played loud, windows down, hand extended to surf the air. It is in deference to that musical legacy that I make this gentle suggestion: On your next big drive, consider interrupting your favorite playlist for the companionship of a long story read aloud.
I am a recent convert to the joys of audiobooks. I have vague memories of childhood trips listening to books on tape, and my sister and I once drove through the night to north Georgia listening to Tina Fey’s Bossypants. Mostly, though, my driving history has been set to music and podcasts. That changed last summer when, to celebrate the end of graduate school, I hit the road for two months and took the entire Harry Potter series on old-fashioned CDs with me.
I had somehow made it to age 30 without diving into the story of the boy wizard who had accompanied the adolescence of so many of my friends. This trip, after three years of research papers and academic texts, was the perfect time. I was embarking from Seattle to explore the red rocks of Utah and Colorado, unwind at home in Bradenton, visit friends in New England, then meander my way back to Seattle; J.K. Rowling’s seven-book series would set the soundtrack.
It was an ideal match. Jim Dale’s sharp, vivid narration harmonized with the whirring of the tires, and his voice was both soothing and dynamic, like a long-lost uncle who had come to tell me a story. That story’s unfolding was marked by moments of fortuitous timing: Harry taking to the skies on his broom just as I summited Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park; ominous thunderclouds building over the highway ahead while the villainous Voldemort gained strength; a soft rain falling in sync with the death of a beloved character.
Some days I found myself driving longer than planned just so I could hear another chapter. I emerged from my car at gas stations and scenic points with tears in my eyes or a goofy grin on my face, both of which no doubt seemed incongruous to my fellow motorists. I would look back toward my little Saturn, the car I had owned for 14 years, and even in its familiarity it was transformed. There was an entire world contained in those four doors, a world of magic and mystery, heroes and monsters.
That is the gift of audiobooks: elevating a familiar setting or activity into something new. You’re driving or going for a walk or working in the garden, but at the same time you’re immersed in another world, riding the ups and downs of a compelling narrative while you pull a weed or turn on your blinker. It’s more than distraction or escape, too. Dedicated readers already know that when we step into other worlds, whether on a page or through a speaker, we deepen the empathy and curiosity with which we engage our own world.
As that literary tradition evolves, many readers now turn to audiobooks to supplement the timeless pleasure of turning a page. Last year, the Audio Publishers Association reported that sales had grown by nearly 20 percent for three consecutive years, and most public library systems (including in Sarasota and Manatee counties) now offer audiobook downloads or you can download from sites like audible.com and stream through your phone. So next time you’re packing up the car or looking for some summer reading, give it a shot—let someone else tell you a story.
A Southwest Florida native and former Sarasota Magazine associate editor, Beau Denton currently lives in Seattle, where he works as a freelance writer and content coordinator for The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology.