Bedridden Listening: Sarah Wheeler on the Transformative Experience of Listening to Audiobooks While Ill
The Co-Host of Mother Culture on Becoming a Different Kind of Reader
At the end of summer, I was two-thirds of the way through Lydia Kiesling’s epic, oil-themed novel, Mobility, when my mind began to unravel. One moment my eyes were on the computer monitor, finishing an installment of my parenting column, the next moment they were on the brown-slatted floor of the barn-cum-office I share with another writer. I told her I needed to lie down, and proceeded to do so, for weeks on end.
From then on I spent most of my days woozy and weighted down by some crushing, imaginary gravity. Three months later, with a few plausible hypotheses about my illness but no proposed cures, I am still stricken by waves of dizziness and what I’ve come to refer to as “concrete brain.”
Those early days were miserable. It wasn’t just that I couldn’t take my kids to school, couldn’t carry on a conversation, couldn’t write. I also couldn’t read. Not on my phone or computer. Not on the e-reader or in the papery flesh. I had thought reading would be a way to ease the pain of my mysterious debilitation. I had read on the benches of my elementary school playground, unskilled at jump rope and social maneuvering. I was one of those bored children who always had a book open in her desk. Reading had saved me many times. It could save me again.
But whenever I looked at words on the page, they swam, like in a bad video simulating dyslexia I had seen as a young teacher. That wasn’t dyslexia, which many of my students then experienced. And neither was this. This was something more uncategorizable, pulsing. I did not know how to fall asleep without a book, how to wait without a book, how to be, without a book.
After a week I was aching with boredom, and my husband suggested I listen to something. Up until then I had always avoided audiobooks. They seemed to be attempting to replicate the reading experience, but never hit the mark. I had made voice recordings of many books in my classroom for those children who couldn’t tackle the orthography, and in this case they were seen as a crutch. An accommodation when the real thing was not in reach.
As an ADHDer and a highly visual thinker, information that came in through my ear drums always felt slippery. My mind would wander and miss important things and have no idea how to return to them since I didn’t know what they were in the first place. But now, multitasking was out of the question. Listening seemed like a possibility.Up until then I had always avoided audiobooks. They seemed to be attempting to replicate the reading experience, but never hit the mark.
At first I downloaded whatever I could find for free from the library, low-risk if it didn’t pan out. And I needed comfort reads, so wrapped up was I in my fear and bodily sensations.
I found an edition of Pride and Prejudice that was just right, not the overwhelming dramatized-version with different actors for different characters. Not the one read, preposterously, by an American. This one lulled me to sleep with a story I knew and loved well. When I woke up in the night, wondering what was wrong with me and why I couldn’t get my doctors to care, I returned, mid-chapter, to my dear Lizzy Bennet, soothed by Austin’s sharpness and humor and the follies of able-bodied people, whose minds of course still failed them.
One week I toggled back and forth between Claire Dederer’s abusive-art criticism, Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma, and Lindy West’s relenting and uproarious collection of film reviews, Shit, Actually. Both were read by the authors, who took the place of the friends I wasn’t well enough to see. When Dederer began to overwhelm me with thoughts of child molestation, West would delight me with her unforgiving retelling of Face/Off.
I read (though even now I am self-conscious about using that word), silly books like the Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, which accompanied me as I began to slowly rise from my bed and attempt small tasks around the house. I read (each time I say it I grow in confidence) Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans, and was sure that I had dozed off and missed some important plot point that explained the heavy, foreboding feeling before remembering, through my mental haze, that that’s just what an Ishiguro narrator feels like.
Listening to books was not the same as reading them. But whereas before, I had taken the value of written and audio books as mutually exclusive, I began to entertain the idea that maybe an audiobook was its own thing. I began to recognize the disparagement of audiobooks—whether open or implicit—as a certain kind of ableism. The written word is seen as a default, and any translation of it, as with my dyslexic students, was a mark of inferiority.
But hadn’t we been telling stories long before we’d thought to make symbols to represent them? Maybe audiobooks still could not replicate, for me, the experience of seeing words on the page. Maybe they didn’t have to in order to earn their keep.
Before bed, if my husband wasn’t too exhausted from keeping our two children alive and happy, despite their concern for their puzzlingly incompetent mother, he read aloud to me from Andrew Leland’s The Country of the Blind. Andrew, a friend, told his tale of slipping further and further into blindness, becoming disabled in a country that both misunderstands and despises the disabled, but also includes an incredible community of disabled people. One doctor told me it might take a year to heal from whatever had coalesced in my brain. Another warned that it would happen again.
I thought about Andrew, his voice layered behind my husband’s. He was a wonderful father and writer, who was able to hold his blind self apart from his seeing self—apart, but equally worthy. I had hope that this new person I was becoming, who even when recovered would likely remain changed, would also be of value.
When I grew tired of books and anxious to understand the Zeitgeist again, itself a symptom of my improvement, I asked friends to record short pieces for me. I was afraid at first to do this, that it was too indulgent, but my friends disagreed. Laura, a mother from my children’s preschool, read Claire Vaye Watkins’ Tin House lecture “On Pandering” to me in five eight-minute installments.
When I put out the call, I’d asked for people who liked the sound of their own voice and had a few free minutes. Laura told me on that first recording that she hated the sound of her voice, but she was going to do it anyway.
I opened each file like a Tiffany’s box, playing them on my shitty phone speaker as I took my daily bath. When Laura went skiing for the weekend between parts three and four, I thought I would peel my own skin off with suspense. This talk, given by another female writer eight years ago, reminded me why I cared to write at all, gave me another reason to undergo increasingly uncomfortable medical tests, drink tea that tasted like dirt and rocks three times a day, rest in preparation for something better to come, or for the acceptance that it would not.I was not back to my old self, but was becoming something else, something I could work with.
A college friend, whom I hadn’t seen in twenty years, who had recently been through a divorce, read me a New Yorker article from her home in New York City. “Thanks for the opportunity to do this,” she said at the top, as if I was doing her a favor. The sound of her voice transported me to another version of myself, one who could walk for more than a few minutes without feeling faint, stay up past 8 p.m., think, and of course read, but who wasn’t nearly, even in these dark days, as happy as the version of me now.
Months into my illness, a friend underwent a surgery that cap-stoned over a year of cancer treatment and that, unfortunately, was slightly botched. She ended up in the hospital for weeks instead of days, high on pain pills and her own adrenaline, awoken at 4 am each night for a blood draw by a nurse whom she gave a nasty nickname. The books I had bought her for her at-home-recovery sat in their gift bag, useless.
By then I could read, mostly, without incident. I had finished Mobility, burned through the new Lauren Groff, sobbed while reading Elizabeth Rush’s memoir on climate change and motherhood, The Quickening. I was not back to my old self, but was becoming something else, something I could work with.
Sometimes I had to shut a book earlier than I’d wanted to, or read in the morning instead of at night, when my brain got fuzzier. My old love of reading had returned to me with, slowly but surely, and with a new shape to it. But I still always had a book ready for listening. I was willing to pay for them now, too. To lounge around, focused solely on them. To treat them with respect.
I took one of the books I had purchased for my healing friend, like talismans to ward off her disease. I pulled it out of its tissue paper and made that first crease of the spine, so definitive and satisfying. Then I hit record, and sent my friend—shocked and afraid and uncertain of what her new world would make of her—a little treasure.