My devotion to audiobooks began in earnest in art school, when I realized that I could crank out drawing assignments at two in the morning, while the great Jim Dale narrated Harry Potter in the background. I was an avid reader, but not always a diligent student, and throughout my college years I tended to phone it in for any required reading. Chalk it up to the arrogance of youth. Why would I read what anyone told me when I could devour Michael Chabon or Jonanthan Franzen or Zadie Smith on my own? Or suffer through Marshall McLuhan when I could listen to Frank Muller narrating Beach Music, all while cranking out an animation assignment to boot? Senior year, I ignored writing a term paper for an art history class, opting instead to finish Confederacy of Dunces on the couch in the illustration lounge. What could I say? It wasn't a fair fight. The book won. Ironically, my being a devoted reader had the effect of making me a crappier student. I was less inclined to read anything assigned, because I only wanted to pick out my own literature. In my mind, books were supposed to always be interesting and personal, and if I didn't find one so, I had no patience for it. A book you selected on your own was meaningful; a book you were assigned to read just meant you were doing your homework.
Because I listen to books more than I physically read them, and because I often draw when I listen to books, my reading life and my artistic life seem intertwined. Last summer I painted walls of Flashpoint Gallery while listening to The Love Affairs of Nathanial P.; Lines from Infinite Jest have snuck into certain drawings, and I spent this morning listening to to Stephen King's writing memoir while doodling commuters on the Metro.
I've gotten into heated debates with a few friends who claim that audiobooks don't count as reading (one even said that I was being deliberately deceptive by using the terms "reading" and "listening" interchangeably), but for some reason these friends never are the ones who read a lot to begin with. My friends who read the same way I do—the ones who feel vaguely uneasy if they aren't in the middle of a novel, and don't have another one lined up on deck for when they're done—never get bogged down with distinctions about what does and doesn't count. And sadly, many conversations about books invariably turn into conversations about guilt over books not read. As though reading is still seen as something that you should be doing, like recycling or going to the gym, and not one of life's pleasures that you can enjoy for its own sake.
For audiobooks at least, I think the tide is shifting. Every three-to-six months there is an article in the in the New York Times with an, "Audiobooks are a Thing Now!" type-headline, not unlike the articles written about comics with the same lead ("Comics! They aren't just superheros anymore") on a similar news cycle. And celebrities are narrating audiobooks, which can't hurt.
This past summer I installed my show at the DCAC while listening to House of Mirth, and it occurred to me that I am shifting too. Finally, I am in the stage of my life where I am ready to appreciate early 20th novels (also, I was an idiot—Edith Wharton is superb). I don't know why all the books I so readily dismissed as a student when they appeared on a syllabus are suddenly are becoming appealing, but I am haunted by a line of Henry David Thoreau: “Read the best books first,” he said. “Or you may not have a chance to read them at all.”