In 2018, for my final post as a trainee psychiatrist, I found myself in a placement nearly 100km from my home. The placement was only for a year, so I was hardly going to up sticks and move closer, and I am not sure my wife would have been too keen even if I did decide to move. Instead, I settled on commuting to and from work each day.
That is not to say the idea of driving nearly 200km each day filled me with joy. For me, driving is a means to an end, it does not fill me with the joy or pleasure others experience on the road, and if there are alternatives to driving I am certainly willing to consider them.
As well as the distance to be covered, the early start to get on the road and arriving home late in the evening, it was the repetitive boredom of an hour and a half each way on the move with nothing to do but road for entertainment which I found daunting. I have never been one for music or listening to the radio, and I could hardly take out a book while I was driving or a pad of paper to write. This was such a pressing issue that I considered making the journey by train. It would certainly have allowed me time to read or write, but would have added an hour or more to my journey, assuming the train was on time to begin with.
In the end, I arrived at the obvious solution; audio books.
If I was to be stuck in a car for a couple of hours each day, it made sense to spend my time going something productive, and working through a selection of books I have been wanting to read is as good a way as any to pass the time.
At the time, my car was a little over seven years old. It had been fitted with a USB port, and was perfectly capable of playing music, or indeed audiobooks, from my phone, from where I could choose an endless selection of audiobooks. Unfortunately, the technology is dated, and when I have tried playing songs or podcasts from my phone before, it will stop playing at the end of each track. Not the best if I have an hour’s drive on the motorway when I cannot be picking up my phone to select the next track.
While I did briefly consider wearing headphones for my drives before dismissing this as a silly idea, I had to settle for plan B, audiobook CDs. For my car was built around the time USB ports were being fitted, and at the same time they still had CD players as standard. If I could not listen to audiobooks on my phone, I could certainly listen to books being read using the CD player.
When I first decided this was how I would pass my time, I imagined I would have a wide selection of audiobooks to choose, from modern bestsellers to the classics. A quick search through the usual online book stores told me I was mistaken. CDs it appears are a thing of the past, and trying to find new audio CDs for sale is a challenge (it is not impossible, but certainly not as straight forward as I had anticipated).
My next port of call was eBay. If I could not find brand new audio CDs, I would have to buy them second hand. Here, I had more luck. I was able to find a variety of books and collections covering everything from the Penguin Classics to Terry Pratchett and Philip Pullman. I quickly had a large selection of CDs on order, as well as a CD case to keep them all in.
And what a godsend they proved to be. The drive was as long and monotonous as I anticipated, with the majority of the time on a motorway few other cars use, meaning most of my time is spent cruising at the speed limit. The time would have felt a complete waste, was it not for the incredible worlds I was able to explore through the audio CDs.
Some of the books I had read before but wanted to read again, such as his Dark Materials. Some have been books I have wanted to read for some time, like the Isaac Asimov Foundation series. Some books were ones I would not usually consider, such as David Attenborough’s autobiography (I love David Attenborough, it is the autobiography I am not a huge fan off, but I must say his book, read by the man himself, was engaging). Currently I am reading Frankenstein, a story I thought I knew, but one full of so much more nuance than simply a madcap scientist and his creation. And yes, I have continued listening to audiobooks after the long commute has ended. It takes me longer to get through a book when the journey times are shorter, but I am still enjoying the experience regardless.
It has not all been plain sailing. Take the Asimov books as an example. They have been copied from a cassette tape recording onto CD. At points, the narrator tells the listen to turn over the cassette, the playback speed is not always true to life and the voice is distorted, and on at least two occasions an entire cassette appeared to be missing. Even so, I was able to follow and enjoy the story, unlike when I tried to listen to Orwell’s 1984, where chapter 1 was followed by chapter 11 and the story was entirely lost on me.
It has been a couple of years since I started listening to audiobook CDs, and I am coming near to the end of my original pile (lockdown has certainly slowed my listening as I was rarely in the car). I have managed to locate a couple of new books for my collection (including a reading of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species which is apparently 24h long!), so my enjoyment can continue for a while longer. I will also have to drive my current car until it gives up the ghost, given most modern cars are CD playerless.
Maybe one day I will give up my car, get a new one and finally be able to invest in digital audiobooks, but to quote Aragon from the Lord of the Rings; it is not this day!