I feel compelled this week to talk about audiobooks, because for the second time the book I most want to be reading is actually the book I most want to be listening to. Right now, as I wipe down counters and tidy up the house at night, I’m listening to Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things and Cheryl’s voice and words have crept into my mind and my heart like you would not believe.
And before this, it was Orange is the New Black.
I have not generally been an audiobook person, even when it made a lot of sense for me to be one. I once had a job that required me to spend three hours in the car two or three times a week, and it would have made perfect sense to spend that time book listening. But I didn’t really. I’m a visual learner and have a tendency to space out while listening to something, especially voices, causing me to miss a key plot point or sentence. I love music and enjoy the radio. So other than a pleasant audio-read of The Year of Magical Thinking and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I mainly stuck to music and NPR.
I’ve generally thought of audiobooks as the also-rans, the “ok if I have to” of books (for me. I know a lot of folks who prefer to read this way, and that’s great). But I decided to listen to more audiobooks when I started this blog because I felt a little pressure to increase my “books read” list. Audiobooks during household chores would be perfect. And I hoped that having a good audiobook would make me look forward to those household chores a little bit more, or at least dread them less.
Until now, I haven’t actually looked forward to my audiobook time. I spend my whole day with two little people and an exhaustive amount of words. My three-year-old is a talker, and the constant cacophony of pleads and whines and even sweet little endearments fills up the day, and by its end I want nothing so much as silence, or maybe some music. I have had to force those headphones on my ears to keep up with an audiobook at night, but once I do, something surprising happens. It feels good to listen to someone read to you. As opposed to the fast-paced patter of daily chatter, the reading is calm, modulated, slightly unemotional even during emotional scenes. And it feels good to be read to. Like you are being tended to, taken care of. Kind of like you are the three-year-old getting tucked in before bed.
Which brings me back to Orange is the New Black (finally. sorry.) Because everything everyone has said about the narrator making a huge difference in an audiobook is exactly right. OITNB is the first book I have not only recommended that someone read, but specifically that someone listen to. Apparently, says the book cover, it has won an Earphones Award for Exceptional Audio Performance. It is read by Cassandra Campbell, who according to her bio has narrated nearly two hundred audiobooks and received multiple Audie Awards.
Which makes sense because she was amazing. So was the book. Probably most people know the plot: Piper Kerman is sentenced to 15 months at a federal correctional facility for a drug offense she committed during a reckless phase in her twenties. At the time she is sentenced she is well beyond that phase; she has a stable boyfriend, friends, and job in New York.
The first chapter of the book addresses the crime itself. Piper (I’m sorry, but I feel the need to refer to her on a first-name basis) has graduated from Smith college, is feeling adrift and rebellious, and enters a relationship with an older woman. It turns out this woman arranges for drug money to be moved from country to country for a large international drug ring, of which she is only a small part. At first, Piper has nothing to do with this. She accompanies her girlfriend on her drug travels and lives a sort of sleazy quasi-glamour. But at one point Piper is asked to start delivering, and reluctantly, she does.
And then she quits. She is not caught. The lifestyle starts to sicken her, so she leaves and goes on to build a completely normal life. It is not until years later that the drug ring is investigated, and she is named, charged, and eventually imprisoned. And nothing, not her boyfriend, her job, her education, her loving and well-off family, can save her from jail time.
The rest of the book chronicles her time at the correctional facility. It tells of how she adjusts to prison and its rituals and systems. It describes the women who populate the jail, making them fully dimensional and completely human. It deftly weaves in the systemic injustices found within the prison system. The book is great, and Piper’s words and Cassandra’s voice (sure, I’m on a first-name basis with them all) bring the characters to life. I’m not usually one for over-the-top accents or voices, but Cassandra does great work at making each individual’s voice distinct without making my eyes roll. Piper’s prison world starts to feel like a family to her, and to the reader as well.
Many people make poor choices in college and their early twenties, and move past those choices thinking, “phew. that could have turned out poorly and it didn’t. Moving on now.” Piper’s case seems extreme, but not as much as you might think. Piper was a WASP-y girl out of a good liberal arts college feeling a little bohemian and looking for some excitement. She got involved with the wrong person and took it about one step further than she really should have. It really makes you think about the choices you make when you are young. I plan to send my kids off to college someday with a copy of this book.
But part of the beauty of OITNB is that Piper truly does face down her crime and learns from it as she realizes how her tiny part in the drug trade contributed to an industry that harms real people, most of whom she would never have met without spending time in prison. The jail in which she serves time is full of women who are addicted to drugs, or who are impoverished and have no way but the drug trade to stay afloat. When Piper goes to prison she is only sad for having hurt her family and friends with her reckless actions. By the time she leaves she realizes that she has contributed to an industry that ensnares a huge part of the population, most of whom have far fewer options than she does.
Piper deftly sprinkles her frustrations and criticisms of the prison system throughout the book, without losing the narrative or seeming preachy. It is frustrating to watch how little time and money is spent on educating women about how to live in the world post-prison without sliding back into whatever it is that got them there. None of the women is taught how to do an internet search for a job, or has access to a computer. A course on “housing” for women nearing their release focuses on home decor instead of how to find an affordable apartment that would accept ex-cons. Drug addicts do not receive counseling on how to stay clean once they are back in the outside world where drugs are accessible to them.
Piper says it seems like no one is in charge, that the prisoners and correctional officers seem largely unsupervised and cut off from the outside. That probably has a lot to do with funding but I also think it is because no one really wants to think about or deal with prison or the people who populate it. It is so unpleasant, it is so much easier to assume that the people who end up there are “bad guys.” But Piper does a great job of showing how so many of these women’s bad choices are a result of poverty or addiction, and how few options in life most have. She does not make apologies for them, they all participated in criminal behavior, but makes the case that many need help as much as punishment.
This book makes you think, and even more so for the fact that listening to it felt like it was Piper directly telling you her story.
One awkward segue back to audiobooks before I go: I have two remaining issues with audiobooks. The first is that it is hard to understand where you are within the structure of the book. The other is you can’t mark a page or phrase that you liked. As I wrote this post I would have liked to flip or click through some pages to make sure I was capturing things accurately, but doing so is annoying in an audiobook. Still, this book and its narrator made me realize that audiobooks should have their own special place in my arsenal, not just the consolation prize for doing chores.