As I cruised the long, lonely stretches of Nevada’s Highway 93, I was transported to the 18th- and 19th-century streets of New York City, Albany, and Washington, D.C., alongside United States Founding Father Alexander Hamilton.
And as I gazed at the marvels of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, a part of me was in the Highlands of Scotland, right in the midst of a crew of feisty wizards and witches.
Such is the beauty of audiobooks -- those wonderful creations that allow you to listen as a narrator reads a book. For me, they offer an unbeatable opportunity to travel virtually while you travel.
As an avid road tripper, I have long turned to audiobooks as a means of battling the boredom of long drives. That reached a zenith in 2020 -- surely the year of the road trip. When I recently looked back at my audiobook history for the past year, I found that I had listened to 40 audiobooks, mostly while I was driving.
Since no one expects the travel situation to change quickly in 2021, I have compiled a list of audiobooks -- some fairly new, others older -- to lighten your future road trips. Here are 11 of them.
1. The Great Alone
Alaska has been on my travel must-list for years, and I had toyed with taking a trip there in 2020. That didn’t happen, but I was able to “travel” there anyway through The Great Alone, Kristin Hannah’s wonderful 2017 novel that is part coming-of-age story, part fictional travelogue for the area near Homer, Alaska.
I see The Great Alone as a way to transport to the wilds of Alaska, even if you’re stuck driving to spots in your own backyard. Or, if you’re lucky enough to be road-tripping through Alaska, the book would be a great introduction or accompaniment.
2. The Boys In The Boat
I love a nonfiction book that makes me think, “Why didn’t I know this?” That was the case with Daniel James Brown’s 2013 The Boys in the Boat, which chronicles a team of young rowers from the University of Washington on a quest for a gold medal in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
The rowing saga is compelling, but I also enjoyed the backstories -- especially of team member Joe Rantz’s amazing odyssey as he moved around the states of Washington and Idaho while dealing with the trials of the Great Depression. It made me want to check out the backroads in the Northwestern U.S.
3. The Flight Attendant
With HBO’s series bringing attention to Chris Bohjalian’s suspenseful 2018 novel The Flight Attendant, I decided to listen to the book before watching the series.
Without giving any spoilers, I’ll say that the series departs quite a bit from the book. For one thing, the main setting is Dubai rather than Bangkok. I especially relished the book’s focus on flight travel, as well as its later locations in Rome and New York City.
4. Kitchen Confidential
Although I had long been a fan of the late Anthony Bourdain’s TV series No Reservations, The Layover, and Parts Unknown, I had never read the book that started it all, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.
I finally got around to it in 2020. I found the audiobook highly entertaining, especially its descriptions of Bourdain’s early culinary adventures in Normandy, France, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and New York City. A special treat with the audiobook is that Bourdain narrated it himself. The book is a perfect accompaniment to a foodie-focused journey.
5. The Dutch House
Author Ann Patchett’s 2019 novel The Dutch House offers an enthralling story centering on family dynamics, wealth, and poverty, and how a magical house can make a life-long impression. I also loved the story’s settings in the suburban area around Philadelphia and the Columbia University area in New York City. It would make a great introduction to an East Coast road trip.
An added bonus: Movie star Tom Hanks narrates the audiobook.
6. Harry Potter
For some reason, I never read J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series when it became a worldwide sensation in the early 2000s. I made up for the omission in 2020, listening to all seven audiobooks narrated by the incomparable Jim Dale.
Along with offering a fun and exciting adventure story, the books wonderfully transport you to the sights and sounds of the Scottish Highlands. I’m late to this party, but I would love to take a road trip through places like Glencoe and Steall Falls, Scotland.
7. Born A Crime: Stories From A South African Childhood
Trevor Noah, the host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, recounts his remarkable early childhood and young adulthood in his 2016 book Born A Crime: Stories From A South African Childhood.
For me, the insights into the waning years of South Africa’s apartheid and the first years of democratic rule were eye-opening. Along with the serious topic, comedian Noah offers a wild and engaging look at growing up in Johannesburg, South Africa. Noah narrates the audiobook.
8. The Alice Network
I love a good spy story, and Kate Quinn’s 2017 novel The Alice Network serves that up brilliantly in a historical dual-timeline story during and after World War II.
I always know that a book is a hit with me if I do online searches for the story’s settings. That was the case with The Alice Network’s haunting descriptions of Nancy, Grasse, and Oradour-sur-Glane, France.
9. Alexander Hamilton
I’ll admit that I had tried to read Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton a few years back but didn’t get through the 818-page tome.
After watching the hugely entertaining Hamilton production on Disney Plus in summer 2020, I decided to give the book another go as an audiobook. I found it a fascinating and enjoyable deep dive into early-American history, with great descriptions of locations throughout New York, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia.
At almost 36 hours, however, the audiobook is best for the very long road trip!
Along with the extraordinary life story that takes Michelle Obama from a childhood in the South Side of Chicago to eight years of living in the White House, the former First Lady’s 2018 memoir Becoming also offers a captivating look at her extensive world travels -- from Kenya to England to India.
In addition, the book offers insights into travels across the United States during the election campaigns of President Barack Obama. The audiobook is especially enjoyable because Michelle Obama narrates it herself.
11. Where The Crawdads Sing
Every now and then, the descriptions in a book are so captivating that you feel like you’re there, smelling the sea air, feeling the sand between your toes, and hearing the calls of the marsh birds. That was the case with Delia Owens’ 2018 novel Where the Crawdads Sing.
Along with being an edge-of-your-seat story, the audiobook also offers a lovely depiction of North Carolina’s marshlands -- sure to inspire many road trips in the future.
How To Access Audiobooks
There are many ways to access audiobooks, but I like to use my local library's selection. With a library card, and through the Overdrive or Libby apps on smartphones or tablets, many public libraries provide free access to a huge selection of audiobooks.
I use Overdrive, and I have worked out a system of always having a handful of books on my “hold” list. That means that when the book becomes available for borrowing, I get an email notification that I can download it. Because libraries have only a limited number of each title available for checkout, you often cannot get your chosen book immediately but need to get in line. If you keep your hold list stocked with titles, though, chances are you will always have something to listen to when you hit the road.
But if getting your selection immediately is important, there are a number of options for payment services that will allow you to get what you want when you want it. Audible and Amazon Prime both offer subscriptions that will enable you to access a limited number of audiobooks per month. Both services offer free 30-day trials.
I like connecting my phone to my car-play option and listening through the car’s stereo system, although I have also listened on an iPad.
Just like the radio or a podcast, listening to audiobooks can be a bit distracting while driving. I recommend only listening while you are on long stretches of interstate highway or when you’re driving through stretches of rural highways. I routinely turn off my audiobooks in city traffic.
I often travel solo on my road trips, so I have only myself to please when it comes to book selections. Although I think all of my selections would be good for anyone, couples might especially like Noah’s Born a Crime or Brown’s The Boys in the Boat. Also, history-loving couples setting out on a long road trip might want to tackle Alexander Hamilton together. Obviously, for families, the Harry Potter series can’t be beaten. And there is always the option of using headphones.