Saturday, August 3, 2019

Still Life with Robin: Driving by the Book

Photo by Bill Adler
by Peggy Robin

At the end of summer and the middle of the fall I have a few long driving trips planned. It’s been quite a few years (OK, decades) since I traveled this way, and so I’m looking for advice about audio books to sustain me through the long stretches of rural roads without NPR….or those long stretches with NPR when I’m tired of re-hearing the same bits on the “All Things Considered” repeat.

I need a book that will be good for at least three hours of an even longer drive. Here are the prerequisites:

The content can’t be too demanding. If it takes too much attention to follow a convoluted plot, or has too many oddly-named characters to keep straight, or has a challenging premise or difficult-to-comprehend scientific paradigm behind it, then I’m not going to divide my attention between the book and the road signs, the construction zones, exits, and/or the voice of the GPS -- and I will undoubtedly miss my turn-off. I might even miss that tractor-trailer that’s decided to change lanes without signaling. That means I must turn down your favorite time-travel story that would have me keep track of multiple realities or timelines. I am just not the multi-tasker I used to be.

Second, it can’t be too grim. I made that mistake a long time ago when I chose an audio book about the Antarctic voyage of the Endurance [], led by the intrepid Captain Shackleton: a six hour narration of an unrelenting struggle for survival, men against the frozen sea, the twenty months spent trapped on ice floes, with their ship slowly, slowly being crushed by pack ice. I started that one on a drive back from Mid-coast Maine to DC, but I made it only as far as the start of the New Jersey Turnpike before I gave up in despair. All of the men would make it to safety in the end by dint of their courage and perseverance….but I just couldn’t take one more paragraph of their frostbitten woe and bailed out somewhere around the Vince Lombardi Service Area.

Third, I’d like to avoid cliff-hanger chapter endings. That rules out a lot of thrillers and murder mysteries. I need something that can readily be paused or turned off at almost any point, without losing the momentum or the fun of the chase, or needing to go back and catch up on missed clues. I once took a trip to a thriller called Vertical Run []. I have no trouble recommending it as a beach read. It’s just not a good book for an extended drive. There comes a point when you or your fellow riders would like to take a bathroom break or stop for a meal, but you find yourself saying, "Hey, we can’t leave the hero dangling off the sixtieth floor – let’s just drive a little farther, till we find out how he gets off the ledge." After a while, your bladder starts to ache…. Though you do find that you will make good driving time!

Fourth, think "upbeat." As I find driving stressful even under the best of conditions, I want a book that won’t add to the stress. That pretty much rules out anything about the contemporary political scene. No inside looks at the chaos inside the Trump administration or what’s broken about our democracy. No soul-searing tours of the criminal justice system or deep dives into life on the margins. My blood pressure is already high enough from all the 80mph cars that are whizzing by. 

What kinds of books have worked well in the past? We’ve done quite a few Bill Bryson travel books with pleasure []. “In a Sunburned country” made us happy to be rolling along that ribbon of highways in America rather than trekking across the parched and barren Outback or the crocodile-lined waterways of the North Coast of Australia. Funny, enlightening, yet easy to pause and start up again. Collections of humorous essays work well. Nora Ephron or other Ephron-ish writers will do nicely []. Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief was perfection []. But these are all decades old. This just gives you an idea of the last time I was on the road for an extended time!

So, long distance drivers, what do you like? If I get enough off-list goodies, I will happily share the lode.

Still Life with Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv and All Life Is Local on Saturdays.

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