I'm such a fetishist for the physical object of a book that I was bushwacked to find myself falling in love with audiobooks. When I was little, most of my book collection was supplied to me every summer by the Cooperstown New York Friends of the Library sale, when I'd take two paper grocery bags and my pocket money and wait in the chilly predawn with a ragged horde of other bibliophiles. When the doors opened: utter bliss. I'd swim for hours in those beaten, dog-eared tomes, rich with dust and must and silverfish, scrawled in by forgotten readers and filled with curiosities: postcards, love letters, grocery lists. I'm still fiercely attached to most of those old books, and whenever I read a new book I absolutely love, I have to buy it. With actual books you can remember the first and last time you read it just by opening the cover, press it onto unsuspecting dinner guests, take it into the bathtub with you, or even leave it as a gift for the next lonely guest in a foreign hostel. They are miraculous objects, books.
That's why, when I took my first solo cross-country drive and borrowed the unabridged audio version of Anna Karenina from the library, I felt sheepish, as if I were committing some sort of reading adultery. That day, though, the audiobook was a revelation: the actor was passionate, precise and able to paint subtle differences between the characters' voices. He had the opposite of my own internal reading voice, which resembles an old-lady auctioneer, and because he had read and understood the book differently than I had, he emphasized different aspects of it that I'd never dreamt existed. I ended up driving below the speed limit for the last six hours of the trip and lollygagging in the driveway when I finally arrived. He had handed me a new version of the book I knew and loved, and I adored him for it.
I tend to only read audiobooks when I'm driving: this has worked out well because for the last eight years I've lived in six cities at the very edges of America, and have taken countless, endless car trips. Though it's exciting to hear a new book from a writer I'd never read before—I heard Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants this way, and Ian McEwan's Enduring Love—I far prefer to listen to books I've already read. Huckleberry Finn unfolded itself into a more poignant love story and more blistering anti-slavery screed in the verbal rendition than it had been in my own silent reading; when I heard Fahrenheit 451 aloud, I heard a devastating condemnation of our current way of life that I hadn't when I read it in high school. There is something about an audiobook that feels ancient to me, a connection to a very early form of storytelling, when a Mother Goose or French jongleur or Nordic skald sat down at the fireside and unfolded a story into the laps of a community of listeners.
Now that my book, The Monsters of Templeton, has been born into the world, I find myself balking at the prospect of listening to the audiobook, even though I hear nice things about it. This is partially because I can hardly bear to read my own writing whenever it happens to be published (for me, journals and anthologies have enormous black holes in them where my work is), partly because I'm a little afraid of the actor-effect of the audiobook. Because I worked on the book for so long, and invested so much of my heart into it, I'm not yet sure I want to read it any other way: I'm not sure I'm ready to give it up to another voice yet.
Someday, though, maybe I'll slide into the car for another long trip and will find the audio version of Monsters and feel ready to put it in. The magic of audiobooks is the magic of surprise, of discovering something thrilling and new in what is already familiar. On that day, after I'll have published enough other books to forget my dear first novel a little, I hope with all my heart to be surprised by it all over again.
Lauren Groff's acclaimed debut novel, The Monsters of Templeton, was published in February and is available in hardcover and as an unabridged audiobook. A native of Cooperstown, she now lives in Gainesville, Florida.