An Ode to Being Read To

Bedtime stories aren’t just for children.

drawing of a book with an ear on the cover and fanned-open pages with a smiling face with eyes closed
Tim Lahan

I fixed my insomnia with whiskey and audiobooks.

Seriously. I was a terrible non-sleeper, once upon a time. In the small hours, in the little pointy hours, wife asleep, son asleep, dog asleep, when the whole apartment seemed to creak and bulge like a vessel rigged for oblivion, I would creep onto the couch and torture myself with last-man-in-the-worldness. But then I discovered it. I synthesized it: Jameson, headphones. The antidote. The warming, blurring-the-edges whiskey—a shot or two, no more—and the human voice.

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First it was John le Carré novels. English voices murmuring about espionage—to a boarding-school boy like me, a cracked product of the Establishment, intensely soothing. Then it was Linda Hamilton (yes, Linda Hamilton of Terminator) reading Martin Amis’s Night Train; Michael Cochrane reading Evelyn Waugh’s The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (a performance of extraordinary Pinfoldian energy—when Cochrane enunciates the word parliamentary it has six syllables); and John Moffatt reading Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. Believe me, nothing lays you out like The Faerie Queene. I don’t think I’ve ever made it to the second canto.

It’s very late-stage capitalism, of course, to sit there or lie there in your envelope of sound, your private entertainment capsule, technologically sealed and cerebrally catered to, fiddling with the volume. But being read to is ancient. I love a podcast—the chitchat, the colloquy—but this is deeper: the reading voice, the singular storytelling voice, thrums in the memory tunnels of the species. When I’m listening to an audiobook, I’m being entertained like a tired ploughman. I’m being lulled, bardically lulled, like a drunken baron at a long feast table, pork grease shining on my chin. I’m being quieted like a child. I’m being spellbound like a face caught in firelight.

And, groggy as I might be, I’m very picky about my readers. The voice I’m listening to should be elevated, but not theatrical. Not too close to the mic: no fizzing sibilants or sticky plosives. Not too fast—I need every word to land. But not too slow, either—I’ll get agitated.

Another thing: no super-fancy prose. No Nabokov. As a reader/writer I’m all for the high style—the trick, as I like to say, is to go too far without going too far. But being read to is not like reading. It engages a denser, more passive, and dimly wondering part of the brain. Epics work well: The Lord of the Rings, Seamus Heaney reading his Beowulf. You’re close to the origins of experience here, the all-mothering darkness. And if you’re prone, and comfortable, and perhaps a little buzzed, you’ll sleep.

This article appears in the October 2022 print edition. When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.