Essentials Week spotlights unexpected items that make our daily lives just a little bit better.
Jonathan Van Ness made me cry on the train to work. Ali Wong told me a filthy joke in the supermarket. Michelle Obama recreated election night in 2008 while I scrubbed my shower.
I’m a proud, hardcore sucker for audiobooks. I use Audible every single day, snatching up those superfluous achievement badges like a beaming front-row Ravenclaw. I listen when I’m walking my wolfhound, when I jump on the train, when I rarely and scarily cook — all the in-betweens when I really should be calling my parents (sorry guys). And while I’ve tried to listen to fiction, it doesn’t land the way audiobook autobiographies do. Especially when they’re read by the author.
Sometimes fiction audiobooks really work for me. Ann Dowd, Bryce Dallas Howard, Mae Whitman, and Margaret Atwood herself narrating The Testaments? Fuck yeah. Audiobook king Stephen Fry doing all the voices in the Harry Potter series? Legendary. But more often than not it just feels a little bit… awkward. Do not listen to Haruki Murakami’s work as an audiobook (trust me, several disturbing scenes in Kafka on the Shore can’t be unheard). And I’ve tried to listen to Frank Herbert’s Dune, and no disrespect to one of the greatest sci-fi books of all time, but I just couldn’t keep up with all the verbally delivered names — Halleck? Hawat? Harkonnens? Who is who? WOOORRRM!
But memoirs read by their authors? For some reason it really works for me.
To me, narrating your own audiobook is one of the bravest things authors can do. Revisiting trauma, loss, or even just elements of your own story that are hard to come to terms with is hard enough to get down on the page, but actually reading it aloud? Pure courage.
For example, Jonathan Van Ness’ Over the Top is one of the most startlingly vulnerable, brutally honest, and beautiful self-love journeys around, and read aloud by the author, it’s incredibly affecting. JVN personally unpacking some truly challenging moments of life really has impact, so whether you read or listen, it’s big. But the Queer Eye star reading aloud passages like the below is like having your own personal life coach sitting in your ear and telling you, nay, insisting that you’re OK just the way you are.
Imperfection is beautiful. To anyone who has ever felt broken beyond repair, this is for you. If you’ve ever been excluded, or told you were not enough, know that you are enough, and beautifully complete.
I damn well needed that one shitty Tuesday morning, and there it was, right in my ear.
Memoirs steeped in politics and current affairs are suddenly humanised when their author is telling their own story. Listening to Malala Yousafzai narrate her book, I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, has so much more impact hearing it directly from the Nobel Peace Prize winner herself. Michelle Obama sings a tiny section of her best-selling memoir, Becoming. Heck, Barack Obama has even won two Grammys for his readings of Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope.
Comedians who narrate their own memoirs can be either exactly as you know them, or completely different. Ali Wong’s Dear Girls: Intimate Tales, Untold Secrets & Advice for Living Your Best Life, a collection of essays to her two daughters that’s as funny, filthy, real, and poignant as her formidable stand-up shows, made me guffaw so hard on the Tube I missed my stop. It’s all in how Wong lowers and raises her voice for dramatic effect, and it’s right in your ear. Jenny Slate’s Little Weirds, on the other hand, is a whimsical, nostalgic, and yes, weird collection of memories, that Slate delivers with such vulnerability that you feel like she’s sharing a secret just with you. See also: Tina Fey’s Bossypants and Amy Poehler’s Yes Please.
Listening to an author tell their own life story actually has a similar impact as seeing a stand-up show, going to a book reading, or most accurately, hypothetically having a beer in the pub with that person, spinning yarns of former lives and loves. Seriously, if you listen to Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking narrated by the Star Wars legend herself, you’ll hear the sarcasm in all the right places, the amusement at her own jokes (she genuinely and delightfully chortles all the way through). It’s based on her one-woman stage show, so works perfectly. Fisher roars at appropriately exasperated moments, almost as if she’s throwing her hands in the air, especially when she thunders the final line, “I can’t forget that stupid, fucking hologram speech. THAT’S why I did dope.”
And it’s Fisher’s reading, and other authors who’ve passed on in recent years, that offers another more poignant reason autobiographies read by their authors are absolute treasures: We get to listen to their voices after they’re gone.
Musicians, many of whom are still with us, are best listened to as well (who woulda thought?). Artists, like Patti Smith, who’ve been reading their memoirs aloud for audiences for decades, are truly meant for this medium. In her latest memoir, Year of the Monkey, Smith weaves something as pedestrian as ordering eggs for breakfast with the far-flung possibilities of the universe so effortlessly and hypnotically, I got lost in Kings Cross station.
Debbie Harry reads her memoir Face It with fellow Blondie member Clem Burke and Alannah Currie from the Thompson Twins. Personal favourites Michael “Mike D” Diamond and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz narrate their wild Beastie Boys Book, with heartfelt dedications to their friend Adam “MCA” Yauch. Hearing memories straight from those who lived it is truly moving — and because the book’s long, they haul in a bunch of famous friends to help them out: Steve Buscemi, Jarvis Cocker, Snoop Dogg, Will Ferrell, Kim Gordon, Spike Jonze, Maya Rudolph, and Jon Stewart to name a few.
There’s a moment in Jonathan Van Ness’ epilogue, which involves an ice rink with none other than American figure skater and Olympic medalist Michelle Kwan and Cher’s “Song for the Lonely.” Listening to the last words of Over the Top, it was genuinely hard to keep it together. Try and read this in JVN’s wonderfully expressive, heartfelt voice:
Learning to parent yourself, with soothing compassionate love, forgiving yourself, and learning from all the decisions you made to get you to where you are — that’s the key to being fulfilled. Learning to be the dream parent cheerleader to yourself. It’s been in you the whole time. And no matter how down you get, you can always make a gorgeous recovery.
I switched over to Spotify, punching Cher’s big-time-feels anthem into the search bar and hitting play. Heaving, snotty crying flowed. It was everywhere. On a main street. Goddamn it JVN.
Reading someone’s story in a memoir is a wonderful journey to take, but if you’re lucky enough to have them tell it to you in their own voice, well, prepare to blub in public.