SUMMER GUIDE 2012: Audio books for the road

“Dreams from My Father.” PHOTO PROVIDED

“Unfamiliar Fishes.” PHOTO PROVIDED

BY RON NETSKY

So you’re taking a trip involving hours in a car, bus, train, or plane. The songs on your iPod are getting old and radio just isn’t what it used to be. So why not do something useful with all that time? Read a book. With your ears. Just plug in your iPod and have the authors or their surrogates read to you.

On past journeys I’ve devoured the works of Erik Larson, Steven Pinker, Susan Orlean, Paul Theroux, Malcolm Gladwell, and Simon Winchester without turning a page. Here are some of my favorite non-fiction audio books that have helped me pass the time traveling. Do you have recommendations for road-trip audio books? Share them by commenting on this article at rochestercitynewspaper.com.

If you’re driving at night and want something to keep you awake, “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism,” the most recent book by Naomi Klein, is guaranteed to get you too outraged to fall asleep. Klein offers an enlightening perspective on world events of the last half-century focusing on abuses perpetrated under the banner of Milton Friedman’s “free-market” economic ideas.

Michael Lewis also has a good grip on money matters. His look at the 2008 financial crisis, “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine,” tracing the adventures of the few who made a fortune betting against the big banks’ houses of cards, is as entertaining as it is informative. I’m anxious to hear his new book, “Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World,” tracking the crisis as it moves around the world (Iceland, Greece, Spain…) and comes back to bite us again.

Listening to “Jerusalem: The Biography,” a superb history of the city by Simon Sebag Montefiore, is not for the faint of heart. The amount of carnage that took place in the small area of land so important to competing religions is of biblical proportions. But the book is indispensable for the insight it provides into the Middle East of today.

All of the above are excellent books, but my favorite audio books are the ones that say “Read By The Author.” What could be better than having the writers themselves tell you their stories with the emphasis and inflection they intend their words to have?

For instance, Barack Obama is such a dynamic reader, I found myself thinking he could have had a career reading audio books if things had worked out differently. He’s also an excellent writer and, because his life story is so compelling, “Dreams from My Father” and “The Audacity of Hope” are both worth reading. But they’re even more worth hearing.

The late Christopher Hitchens was one of my favorite writers and, with his deep, resonant voice, one of my favorite speakers. Most of his audio books are read by someone else, but I was happy to find that his memoir, “Hitch 22,” featured his own voice. Who better to give voice to his awakening to the worlds of politics and literature and his sometimes contentious encounters with politicians and literary figures? Hearing him tell his own story is, in a strange way, a very personal experience.

It is also moving to hear Ayaan Hirsi Ali describe her oppressive childhood in Somalia, which included female genital mutilation, in her own voice. In “Infidel” and the more recent “Nomad,” there is also a wonderful lilt in her voice when she describes her newfound freedom.

Right now I’m between trips, but I’ve got to go somewhere soon so I can get back into “Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base,” by Annie Jacobsen. The vast expanse of land in Nevada, a place the United States government has never admitted exists, is most commonly associated with rumors of aliens. Jacobsen, who interviewed dozens of people who worked at Area 51, starts with the flying saucers, but soon gets into the real story about the weapons developed there.

Even though David Sedaris has come a long way since his debut, writing about his stint as Santa’s elf in a department store Christmas display, his voice retains that same shy charm as he tells seemingly endless stories about his life. Some can be sad but others, like his description of his experience as a performance artist in “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” are laugh-out-loud funny. I can’t even imagine his stories told in a different voice.

But when it comes to authors with distinctive voices Sarah Vowell wins the prize. Her wonderfully cartoony tone nicely reflects her genuine enthusiasm about her historical subjects. On several of her audio books, including “Assassination Vacation” and “The Wordy Shipmates,” Vowell enlists the help of her comedian friends like Conan O’Brien, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert for vocal cameos as historic figures. Her latest book, “Unfamiliar Fishes,” traces the history of Hawaii with characteristic quirkiness (and guest appearances by Fred Armisen, John Hodgman, Paul Rudd and others).

Of course, you have to be careful with audio books. Once, driving my family from Washington, D.C., to my parents’ home in Philadelphia, I put on Scott O’Dell’s “Island of the Blue Dolphins” for my kids. But I fell under the spell of Tantoo Cardinal’s beautiful voice and found myself driving straight across South Philadelphia and onto the bridge to New Jersey.

There are many ways to get audio books. If you prefer bookstores, you’ll find a section with books on CD. Online you can buy them at Audible.com, iTunes, and other sites. And the Monroe County Library system has an enormous collection; check http://www3.libraryweb.org/home2.aspx.

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