Car Culture: A bookish way to while away the miles
Like many of you, I’ve always been something of a news junkie, especially in the car.
Maybe it was imprinted in youth, when as the minute-hand edged toward 12, my dad’s finger would be poised over a radio pre-set button. “Mind if I listen to the news?” he’d ask, cutting off for a few minutes the KISS or Foreigner tunes we were nodding to in the back seat.
As an adult, whether commuting or exploring, my hours behind the wheel were clocked off by the chiming of those top-of-the-hour AM radio news “sounders,” and the quarter-hours noted by the musical vamps introducing weather, sports, Wall Street updates and other repetitive features.
When satellite radio brought CNN, the BBC, NPR and myriad other information channels to my dashboard, I could hardly believe my good fortune, and whiled away many a mile glued to “breaking news.”
But lately, global headlines have been so negative that instead of alleviating stress, the news just adds more tension and bad vibes. Increasingly looking for escapism, I punched up the Radio Classics station on sat radio and corny as it sounds, it does the trick. Vintage mystery shows — many penned by illustrious mid-century writers — and their dramatic sound effects entertain effortlessly, via programs like “Suspense,” “The Whistler” and “Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.” One creepy show, “The Hermit’s Cave,” originated out of WJR in Detroit starting in 1930, right around the time car radios made their debut — and the weird tales are still pretty gripping generations later.
The only problem is, it’s hit-or-miss. You’re just as likely to hit on “The Great Gildersleeve” or “Fibber McGee” as on a spine-tingling chiller from the hermit or a noir detective story, and I find that old-time comedy doesn’t quite hit the spot.
For more control I somewhat belatedly discovered audiobooks, and since ticking off 12 hours on the road Memorial Day weekend with a new-to-me detective series, I’ve been hooked.
Balancing cost with convenience has been the biggest challenge.
Traditional books on CD are OK — that’s what got me started and it was actually the first time I tried the player in my three-year-old vehicle. Having to change discs right at a good part and at 75 mph is somewhat cumbersome, and so is an extra errand to the library to pick them up, but the upside is they can be borrowed free of charge.
Streaming is more efficient, with online services offering a plethora of selections and instant gratification. You simply create an account, make your selection, plug in a credit-card number and click “Play.”
In the car, I just listen on the iPhone via the service’s smartphone app with the volume turned way up; it’s less than ideal and I’m thinking of getting an inexpensive little portable Bluetooth speaker to amp up the sound.
There is a convoluted way of loading to a flash drive and playing through the car’s speakers via the console USB port, but who needs one more device to carry around?
The problem with online services is they can really bust the budget. The series I got hooked on spans more than 20 books — at $15-plus apiece that would be a pretty pricey indulgence. Looking around for cheaper alternatives, I found a few that combine the convenience of streaming with the cost-savings of using the library.
Inexpensive or free audiobook apps for smartphones include FreeAudiobooks (99 cents), which specializes in classics, and an organization called LibriVox, a nonprofit that offers volunteer-read books from the public domain, like Sherlock Holmes and Edgar Allen Poe tales.
The best combo I’ve run across is Overdrive at overdrive.com. It offers a smartphone app and allows you to borrow books if you’re a card holder at one of 30,000 affiliated libraries. It also features a more up-to-date catalogue than other services. E-books and other resources are also available through the app.
Of course, getting the books free means you sometimes have to wait in line, just as at a bricks-and-mortar library; I’ve found a waiting period of days or weeks is not uncommon. But if you fill up a queue of desired titles, once they start rolling in you’ll have plenty of economical listening pleasure.
Melissa Preddy is a Michigan-based freelance writer. Reach her via Melissa@MelissaPreddy.com