Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Best Selling Books On Racism in 2020

Earlier this year, in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, widespread protests and blanket media coverage drew unprecedented attention to issues of racial justice in the U.S. Because book people are the best people, many of us turned to books about racism and dismantling systemic discrimination to understand how we got here, and how to move forward. This week, I read and reviewed Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race; it was published back in 2017, but this year it soared to the top of the sales charts and became the first (and only) black woman to top the UK’s best-seller list. I decided to take a look at some of the other best selling books on racism in 2020…

Best Selling Books On Racism in 2020 - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Just for a little more context: industry trackers showed a 330% increase in sales for books about civil rights, and a simultaneous 245% increase for books about racial discrimination, from the week of 17 May 2020. The books listed below, most published months or years beforehand, outsold even hotly-anticipated new releases with established followings (like the Hunger Games prequel).

These sales were no doubt boosted not only by the goodwill of concerned booklovers, but also the circulation of anti-racism reading lists by activists. This proves that books by and about people of colour are bankable, they can generate huge return on investment for publishers, when they’re given the attention they deserve. My hope is that, in constructing my own list here and continuing to read and amplify others, the interest in books on racism continues to grow (which will mean we see more of them on our shelves, which means more people will read them, and so on to infinity).

When you buy a book from one of the links below, I’ll get a tiny cut for referring you – but that’s not why I’m doing this. Please do consider seeking these books out at an independent bookstore, or requesting them at your local library, to support those vital resources in our communities.

So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

So You Want To Talk About Race addresses a lot of the practical questions that have been front and center of our minds this year (the reason we’ve turned to books on racism in 2020 to begin with). How should we respond to a racist joke? How can we explain white privilege to someone who doesn’t believe it exists? What are we doing that perpetuates systemic racism, and how can we stop? So You Want To Talk About Race hit the top of the New York Times Best-Seller list this year, so hopefully a lot of those conversations have improved as a result.

How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

Once you acknowledge that racism exists and your role in it, what’s next? That’s what How To Be An Antiracist lays out for you: how to set about dismantling systems that perpetuate prejudice and privilege. As per the blurb, “Antiracism is a transformative concept that reorients and re-energises the conversation about racism—and, even more fundamentally, points us toward liberating new ways of thinking about ourselves and each other.” Not only did How To Be Anti-Racist soar to the top of the best seller lists, the New York Review Of Books named it one of the best books of the year.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Most of the best selling books on racism in 2020 were published at least a few years ago, but The Fire Next Time was actually published nearly sixty years ago. It would seem that James Baldwin’s words in this extended essay on civil rights still ring as true today as they did then. Drawing on his own youth in Harlem, and his insight into the real-world experience of injustice, it is both an exposition of racism and a rallying cry to fight it. Many of Baldwin’s other works went on to hit the best seller lists, too.

Me And White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad

Me And White Supremacy is the book you turn to when you need to take a long, hard look at yourself. It started with a personal development challenge on Instagram, one that called on people to examine their own biases and blind-spots, and is now a foundational self-help text in the fight against racism. Of course, it’s not just journal prompts and to-do lists: Saad includes important context, extended definitions, and directions to further reading that will set you on the path to fighting for civil rights.

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo

Even though most best selling books on racism in 2020 have been written by people of colour, there’s one notable exception: White Fragility. The author, Robin DiAngelo, is a white woman, and she actually coined the title phrase (“white fragility”, meaning a state of hypersensitivity and intolerance for issues of race, which trigger defensive responses when confronted). Even though the initial reception was mixed, this book hit the best seller lists alongside all of the other books on racism listed here. I think it’s an important example of white people taking responsibility for starting conversations and educating each other, as opposed to leaving all of that emotional labour to people of colour.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

It’s not just non-fiction books on racism in 2020 that soared to the top of the best seller lists! Iconic fiction titles, including Beloved by Toni Morrison, also saw a huge spike in sales. The dirty pragmatists among us might question the logic – after all, shouldn’t we be reading about the real world in order to learn how to fix it? But in fact, reading fiction actually increases empathic responses and, in being more emotive, gives us stronger internal motivation to push for change. Fiction and non-fiction go hand-in-hand when it comes to opening our minds and combating racism, and Beloved is as good a place to start as any.

Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge

You know I love a good provocative title, and Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race has to be one of the best of recent years. It caused a bit of a stir when it was first published back in 2017, and whipped up into peaks again this year with the spike in sales of racial justice books after worldwide #BlackLivesMatter protests. The cover maximises the impact, using colour and texture to obscure “to white people” until you take a closer look. Aside from any of the book’s contents, my hat goes off to Reni Eddo-Lodge and the team at Bloomsbury for this master stroke!

Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race - Reni Eddo-Lodge - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race here.
(Not only will you get a great read, you’ll also send a tiny commission my way, win-win!)

Alright, enough judging a book by its cover! Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race is Eddo-Lodge’s first book. It started with her blog post of the same name that she published back in 2014, but there’s no need to go trawling the internet for it: Eddo-Lodge reproduces it in full in the preface. It serves as a thesis statement, framing and contextualising everything that is to follow.

So, the $64,000 question: why isn’t Eddo-Lodge talking to white people about race? Well, basically, she’s fed up: with white denial, with white self-flagellation, with trying to shake hands with a brick wall. “The journey towards understanding structural racism still requires people of colour to prioritise white feelings,” she says, and it’s bloody exhausting. Of course, the title expresses that feeling in short-hand; she’s no longer talking to white people who refuse to meet her on the same ground, who refuse to acknowledge the facts, who don’t come to the conversation with open hearts and minds, about race. After all, if she’s constantly called on to be empathetic and to assume the best in others, even those who offend and anger her, why shouldn’t she hold her interlocutors to the same standard?

Of course, the paradoxical effect of publishing the Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race blog post – and, later, book – is that it caused her to spend quite a bit of time talking to a lot of white people about race. She has met every reaction, from glowing admiration to gushing apologies to gross aggression. Eddo-Lodge is an award-winning journalist, and she went out on quite a limb in phrasing and publishing her thoughts this way – she even calls out a number of her colleagues (by name!) from The Guardian and other outlets. She’s not pulling her punches!

A disclaimer: I am reading Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race as one of the titular white people, in the broadest sense – a white person who had an interest in racial justice long before it became a 2020 buzzword (thank you, undergrad sociology classes!) but white nonetheless, with all that it entails. So, you really should take that into account in reading my summary and response to Eddo-Lodge’s ideas here – and I urge you to purchase and read her book for yourself rather than relying on my understanding of it.

As per the blurb, Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race “explor[es] everything from eradicated black history to the inextricable link between class and race”. It is “the essential handbook for anyone who wants to understand race relations in Britain today”. Naturally, her ideas are formed and focused on Britain (as you’d expect, given how much she draws from her lived experience and her education in that country), but the points that she makes are certainly transferable to colonies like Australia.

She begins with an examination of black British history, from the colonial slave trade to the riots and reforms of the 20th century, with particular attention to how blackness came to be associated with criminality. It’s truly fascinating, and I would have read a whole book of her work on that subject alone – one that has, I suspect, too long lived in the shadow of American race history. Although the history Eddo-Lodge describes is awful and terrible and infuriating, it’s also an incredible testament to the resilience, strength, and courage of black British people.

Much of the subsequent discussion in Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race circles around definitions: how we define race, how we define class, how we define feminism, and who those definitions include/exclude. I wanted to imprint many paragraphs on my brain, memorise them to whip out later when I unwittingly find myself in conversation with a racist-who-doesn’t-think-they’re-racist (the worst kind, in my view). Racism is not personal prejudice (“I don’t like X because they’re black”), it is broad discrimination plus the power to affect the lives of the targeted group – it’s the collective effect of bias over time. Racism is to be found in systems and structures that operate to keep people of colour out. “We tell ourselves that racism is about moral values,” Eddo-Lodge says on page 64, “when instead it is about the survival strategy of systemic power.”

The chapter “What Is White Privilege”, I assume, is the most contentious. Eddo-Lodge answers the question directly on page 86: “White privilege is an absence of the negative consequences of racism. An absence of structural discrimination, an absence of your race being viewed as a problem first and foremost…”. The term pisses (some) white people off, presumably because it de-centers them, reminding them that their experience is not universal. White privilege does not mean that a white person has not struggled, has not faced hardship, but it does mean that the colour of their skin hasn’t had a significant negative impact on the trajectory of their life.

Eddo-Lodge acknowledges and explains the complexities of this term in a frank and (in my view) unassailable way. She goes as far as to break her own titular resolution, to no longer talk to white people about race, seeking out white people to interview about – among other things – white privilege, and what it takes to overcome the reflective urge to defend whiteness when it is criticised.

Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race was relatively successful upon its initial release, but following the killing of George Floyd earlier this year, it reached stratospheric new heights of success. It became the first book by a black British author to reach number 1 on the UK’s top 50 book sales chart. It has been endorsed by notable black writers, including Marlon James (who said that it was “essential” and “begging to be written”), and Bernadine Evaristo (winner of last year’s Booker Prize, who likened it to Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist).

I would really love to give Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race a blanket recommendation as a catch-all universally-accessible masterwork of white consciousness-raising. However, I can’t imagine people deeply entrenched in systemic racism, to the point of defending it, picking this book up and learning from it. Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race is not a primer, it’s not a for-beginner’s guide to racism. I would recommend it only to readers who are ready and willing to meet and understand Eddo-Lodge on her terms. If this is your first foray into trying to better understand issues of race and racial justice, keep this one on hand for when you’ve got the basics down, then give it a go.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race:

  • “I want to highlight every word and carry it around with me as anti-racism ammunition – starting Friday evening at work drinks.” – Sophie Armstrong
  • “Great book, and the people who gave it one star probably didn’t read it. Or are just the butt hurt white people in denial that this book is talking about.” – Amazon Customer

10 Best True Crime Books

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m a true crime devotee. In my defence, I was doing it before it was cool. Long before Serial or Making A Murderer, I was a teenager snuggling up with a copy of World’s Worst Serial Killers as bed-time reading. That said, I really appreciate that my secret shame has become Cool and Hip. I’m absolutely spoiled for choice now when I scan the true crime shelves at my favourite bookstore, or scroll the charts for podcasts! It seems only fitting that I put together a list of my favourites – the best true crime books (and never fear, there’s something here for everyone, beginner through to expert!).

10 Best True Crime Books - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Treat yourself to any of the best true crime books through a link on this page, and I’ll get a tiny commission at no extra cost to you – it’s a win-win!

Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil by John Berendt

Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil - John Berendt - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Here’s a question you’ll hear frequently in true crime: was it self-defence, or murder? And that’s the very question at the centre of Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil. In the Old South, a shooting in Savannah’s grandest mansion takes twists and turns that you couldn’t possibly make up. (Here’s another one: the truth is stranger than fiction, you heard it here first!) This classic of true crime books has everything you could ask for: Southern belles, drag queens, reclusive ne’er do wells, and even a Voodoo priestess.

The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean

The Orchid Thief - Susan Orlean - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I think part of the reason true crime gets a bad rap is that people assume it’s all schlocky, grisly serial killers and stuff. In fact, the best true crime books are fascinating and bizarre, written about the kind of crimes you wouldn’t even imagine. Case in point: The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. In 1994, a group of Native Americans were arrested for poaching orchids from a state reserve. Apparently, there is a huge black market for these beautiful flowers, and Orlean’s investigation into the crime reveals more than you’d bargain for.

See also: The Library Book

Zealot by Jo Thornely

Zealot - Jo Thornely - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Why would anyone join a cult? That’s what Jo Thornely endeavours to find out in Zealot. From the outside, it seems literally unbelievable, the way that people are lured – hoodwinked, brainwashed, whatever you want to call it – into handing over their money, their lives, even their children to groups with malevolent intent. What are we missing? Thornely examines all the biggies – The Family, Jonestown, The Branch Davidians – in search of answers.

Trace by Rachael Brown

Trace - Rachael Brown - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I can’t remember how exactly I first stumbled upon the Trace podcast, but in my mind it looms large as the best-of-the-best in true crime podcasting. Rachael Brown investigated a cold case so chilling that I couldn’t believe I’d never heard about it before. The chase for Maria James’ killer zigs and zags across the map (religion, divorce, disability, abuse) but leads only to a series of terrifying dead ends. I waxed so lyrical about this incredible show that my sister-in-law bought me the book Brown wrote about it, also called Trace, for Christmas. If podcasts aren’t “your thing”, this is the perfect alternative: one of the best true crime books about a would-be solvable crime out there.

Bad Blood by John Carreyrou

Bad Blood - John Carreyrou - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Let’s be real: sometimes (not all of the time, but sometimes) the best true crime books are the ones that allow us to bask in the glorious schadenfreude of watching the rich and fabulous get what’s coming to them. I think that’s why Bad Blood hooked me. I can’t speak for the rest of you, of course, but a Silicon Valley start-up that duped millions of dollars out of the obscenely wealthy on the basis of a fake blood testing “development”? That’s a yes, please and thank you.

Murder In Mississippi by John Safran

Murder In Mississippi - John Safran - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m a John Safran fan-girl since the old days of Sunday Night Safran (Triple J just ain’t the same without it!). When he alluded to the fact that he was researching and writing a true crime book – one for which he listened to endless hours of white supremacist ranting, no less – I squealed with delight. Murder In Mississippi (called God’ll Cut You Down in the U.S., because apparently even though Mississippi sounds very exotic and mysterious here, it’s basically the equivalent of calling a book “Murder In NSW” over there – can any American Keeper Upperers confirm?) totally lived up to all of my already-inflated expectations. It’s somehow become even more relevant in the current age of inflamed race relations – Safran is truly a man ahead of his time.

This House Of Grief by Helen Garner

This House Of Grief - Helen Garner - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s the endless debate of Helen Garner’s oeuvre: is she at her best writing thinly-veiled autobiographical fiction, essays, or true crime? I change my mind more often than I change my underpants. Either way, there’s no doubt that some of the best true crime books to come out of Australia have come from her desk and pen, and This House Of Grief is the best – by which I mean the most haunting, gut-churning, and heart-wrenching – of all. Few writers could tackle the trials of a man who drove his children into a dam, killing them, with such insight, nuance, and discernment.

See also: Joe Cinque’s Consolation

Reasonable Doubt by Xanthé Mallett

Reasonable Doubt - Xanthe Mallett - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Most of the best true crime books out there seek the same thing: justice. Usually, that means seeing someone who did a terrible thing punished accordingly. But what about the convictions gone wrong, the miscarriages of justice that lead to innocent people being imprisoned? Dr Xanthé Mallet, internationally-renowned forensic scientist and criminologist, sets out to restore the balance and shine a spotlight on this neglected issue in Reasonable Doubt. Mallett uses a series of case studies to explore the systemic failures of our criminal justice system. By examining how and why miscarriages of justice occur, she reveals opportunities for us to avoid them, and highlights the importance of making adequate restitution where they do occur.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

In Cold Blood - Truman Capote - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reading In Cold Blood is like time-travelling back to where it all began, the “first true crime novel”. In 1959, the Clutter family was murdered in their Kansas farm home, and Capote read a short article about it in The New Yorker. He immediately packed his bags and headed out there to investigate. After six years, and eight thousand pages of notes, he produced In Cold Blood, the book that still defines the genre to this day. (And no, I don’t care that he took some liberties with the truth: it is such a gripping and compelling read that I’ll forgive any and all creative license.) Read my full review of In Cold Blood here.

The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper

The Arsonist - Chloe Hooper - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Sometimes, I find myself wondering if a true crime book is “too soon”. It’s been over a decade since the Black Saturday bushfires here in Australia, but reading The Arsonist proved that the wounds are still raw. Hooper unravels the actions of Brendan Sokaluk that day, the man convicted of lighting at least two of the most dangerous fires. Don’t come to it expecting “answers”. It’s not a thrilling police procedural where the bad guy is hunted down by the good guys and gets what’s coming to him. It’s an intimate portrait of a man who was found guilty of a horrendous crime, with many questions left lingering as to how, why, and even whether. Read my full review of The Arsonist here.

I’ll Be Gone In The Dark – Michelle McNamara

When my dear friend Cathal handed me a copy of I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, I literally squealed with delight. I’d been desperate to read it ever since I did my initial binge-listen to every episode of the My Favorite Murder podcast (reminder: I reviewed the hosts’ joint memoir Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered, also a gift from Cathal, here). But I exercised some restraint, and held onto it until I felt I really… “needed” it. That’s the definition of adulthood, isn’t it? Delayed gratification? Okay, maybe it’s a bit whacky that my gratification comes from a gritty true crime novel, but whatever. I am what I am, and what I am is a true crime junkie. I’ve made my peace with it.

The back-cover summary for I’ll Be Gone In The Dark promises “a masterful true crime account of the Golden State Killer – the elusive serial rapist turned murderer who terrorised California for over a decade – from Michelle McNamara, a gifted journalist who died tragically while still writing and researching her debut book”. It also features glowing endorsements from Stephen King and Gillian Flynn, once again lending credence to the idea that the truth can be stranger (and better) than fiction.

The story of I’ll Be Gone In The Dark has received almost as much attention as the crimes it covers. It all began with McNamara’s blog (True Crime Diary, still online here), and an article she wrote for the LA Times in 2013. At that time, the series of rapes and murders attributed to the Golden State Killer were still a decades-old cold case, with files stretching across multiple jurisdictions and decades. McNamara sadly died, aged just 46, with the manuscript of this book only two-thirds done.

It was completed after her death by the lead researcher and a close colleague (Paule Haynes, and Billy Jensen), and her husband (Patton Oswalt) wrote a touching afterword in her honour. These contributors added footnotes to clarify or expand upon what McNamara had written before her death, rather than editorialising in an attempt to produce a “polished” story. They don’t ignore or gloss over McNamara’s passing, and they don’t falsely emulate her style or voice – it’s always clear to the reader what was McNamara’s work, and what was their logical continuation. On occasion, they cobbled together crucial sections from her notes and blog posts, making it clear to the reader that they had done so. I really liked this approach; it seemed more respectful, to both McNamara and the reader, than any alternative. I’ll Be Gone In The Dark was ultimately published posthumously, in 2018, two years after McNamara’s death.

Even though the book is definitively true crime, it has a more literary bent than most offerings you’d find at airport bookshops. It crosses over into memoir at times, with McNamara offering up her own family history to explain how she came to have an interest in true crime and this particular case. It’s not schlocky, sensationalist true crime, but it’s still compulsively readable. It would seem that the one concession the publishers made to the tropes of the genre were the glossy photograph inserts: smiling photographs of the victims and their families, yearbook photos, neighbourhoods where crimes took place, evidence bags, and police sketches.

McNamara doesn’t shy away from her own role in bringing the case to worldwide public attention; she’s not braggy, but she doesn’t downplay it either. She wasn’t “just lucky”. She, and a group of like-minded armchair detectives, kept the case alive through hard work, persistence, and determination. In fact, it was McNamara who coined the “Golden State Killer” moniker. Prior to that, given that the culprit had undertaken three separate crime sprees with little to connect them, the press had given him three different nicknames (including the East Area Rapist, and the Original Night Stalker). The public, understandably, got the impression that these were different perpetrators, until McNamara came along and started connecting dots on their behalf.

The crimes (over one hundred burglaries, at least fifty sexual assaults, and at least thirteen murders) were all committed long before the DNA testing and lab analysis we have today. “By the time DNA testing revealed that crimes previously thought to be unrelated were the work of one man,” McNamara says on page 4, “more than a decade had passed since his last known murder, and his capture wasn’t a priority”. More than eight thousand suspects were investigated as part of the Golden State Killer case, but when McNamara started her blog, the police still had nothing.

It’s near impossible to wrap your head around the magnitude, severity, and sheer volume of crimes committed by the Golden State Killer, and McNamara doesn’t even attempt to lay out the facts of the case(s) in any linear fashion. I can’t even imagine how difficult it would have been to try to capture the scope and relate the details of all of these crimes, because there were just so many – and, being an unsolved case with no leads at the time of writing, it’s not like there were trial documents or police interviews to verify information against. McNamara and her publishers helpfully included, in the front of I’ll Be Gone In The Dark a timeline, a map, and – most importantly, in my view, a list of victims and investigators. That’s something I wish we saw more in true crime: front-and-center focus on victims, and the people who work to bring them justice.

That said, the title is drawn from a threat the killer made to one of his early victims:

“… a man in a leather hood entered the window of a house in Citrus. Heights and sneaked up on a sixteen-year-old girl watching television alone in the den. He pointed a knife at her and issued a chilling warning: ‘Make one move and you’ll be silent forever and I’ll be gone in the dark,’.”

Page 60-61

Still, because the killer hadn’t been identified at the time of writing, I’ll Be Gone In The Dark by default avoids exploiting the victims or overtly revering the serial rapist and murderer (the way that true crime books about, say, Ted Bundy, tend to).

I’ll Be Gone In The Dark topped the New York Times Best Seller List for non-fiction, and remained there for fifteen weeks. HBO subsequently purchased the film rights, and a six-part documentary series was released earlier this year. But, of course, the big clincher is this: since the time of publication, the Golden State Killer has been caught. His identification and arrest was controversial, as it occurred through the use of DNA evidence matched against samples provided to a genealogy website. What’s even more stunning is that McNamara foresaw this: in I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, her notes point to her intention to find a way of running the killer’s DNA through 23AndMe or

Obviously, there are all kinds of scary ethical questions raised by this type of investigation, but I won’t explore them here. All I’ll say is, just this once, I’m glad it worked. The culprit has been sentenced to life in prison, without the possibility of parole, after pleading guilty to multiple counts of murder and kidnapping (he cannot be charged on counts of rapes he committed in the 1970s, as the statute of limitations has passed – boo to that!).

I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, though, concludes with a letter from McNamara to the then-unidentified killer. In it, she personally implores him to step into the light. It gave me literal goosebumps – and I still can’t help but wonder what went through his mind when he read it (as he undoubtedly has).

I’ve heard some readers complain that reading I’ll Be Gone In The Dark is less captivating now that the “case is solved”. I would argue that, if that’s the case, you’re reading it for different reasons than I am. I read this book to learn about a woman’s pursuit of justice, to understand the horrors wrought upon the women who were victimised by one terrible man, to get some insight into how fifty years can go by without an answer being found. I’m not here to gawp at a cold case (and if you are, no worries, there are plenty of other true crime books out there for you). But if you’re anything like me, if any of those motives sound more appealing to you than simple scares and shock factor, then I’ll Be Gone In The Dark is the book for you, as it was for me.

I don’t often include plugs at the end of my book reviews, but given the nature and content of this one, I feel it’s warranted. U.S. Keeper Upperers, I know there’s a lot of you – consider throwing some support towards End The Backlog, who aim to eliminate the atrocious backlog of untested rape kits across your country and prevent such a backlog from ever building up again. For Keeper Upperers elsewhere, look into your local or state-based sexual assault support services, I’m sure they could use your backing, too!

My favourite Amazon reviews of I’ll Be Gone In The Dark:

  • “This book legit gave me nightmares. 10/10 would recommend.” – Justin Marshal Kirkpatrick
  • “I don’t understand the reviews for this book. I found it to be dull and boring. My favorite true crime books read like a novel. This book is stale and full of percentages.” – siansays

How To Read Audiobooks

I’m very sure that I’m far too young to use the phrase “back in my day”… but back in my day, audiobooks were clunky collections of CD-roms that you had to play in your Discman (changing out the AA batteries every couple of hours). Times have changed, Keeper Upperers. With a family history of both book-loving and macular degeneration, I’ve long been a staunch advocate of audiobooks. I’ve made many an impassioned, self-righteous speech about how reading audiobooks is reading, and anyone who says otherwise needs to pull their ableist head out of their proverbial arse. But, I had to admit: I never actually read them myself. Here’s the story of your ride-or-die paperback reader learned how to read audiobooks.

How To Read Audiobooks - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I might never have undertaken this audiobook project at all, had it not been for the scourge of COVID-19. I’m sure that seems counter-intuitive. After all, doesn’t the imposition of self-isolation and social distancing give one more time to sit at home, alone, with a paperback? In theory, yes, but there’s a confluence of factors at play, here. First off, I’m a podcast junkie: I live with headphones in, listening to all manner of chatter about a range of topics, regardless of what’s going on in the world. Second, I’m a cheapskate, and I never could bring myself to shell out for an Audible subscription on a whim. And, finally, even though I knew that my local library had a program for loaning digital audiobooks, I never quite got around to actually downloading the app and figuring out how to use it. That’s where COVID comes in.

See, libraries have been pillars of our community for as long as books have been around. They are one of the most adaptable, agile, and accommodating systems that the human race has developed (and, yes, that’s a hill I’m willing to die on – fight me!). I’ve always known it, and this knowledge was reinforced by reading The Library Book, and the onset of a global pandemic. Libraries around the world had found ways to continue to serve and protect (I use that phrase very deliberately, ahem) our most vulnerable and disadvantaged communities, even in the face of unprecedented pressure and constraint. Some have been transformed into testing clinics, some have found safe ways to offer entertainment and engagement to isolated families, all have provided refuge and support in a time of crisis.

Being the pinko leftie I am, I wanted to find a way to support my local library the way it has supported my community this year. With most branches closed, and my representatives at all levels of government sick of my advocacy emails, I had to get creative. I had always meant to try audiobooks, and here was the perfect opportunity: I would download the library app, showing my support by using their resources (which would inevitably show up in a spreadsheet somewhere, validating their worth) in a way that didn’t deplete the capacity of the librarians themselves, and I’d tick an item off the bucket-list into the bargain. Win-win!

I actually felt kind of silly for having put it off for so long. My library offers a free app with a simple interface that required nothing more than my library card number and my email address. Digital audiobooks and eBooks are all offered on the same platform, with separate and generous lending limits. It took me five whole minutes to master the thing from end-to-end. What on earth had I been waiting for?

I decided against borrowing eBooks (my phone screen is too small for extended reading, and as I’ve said, I’m committed to paper-and-ink), but there were thousands – literally thousands – of audiobooks available to download at the tap of a button. I had the option to reserve ones that were currently on loan (the same way I would physical books in the library building). I could borrow audiobooks of every conceivable genre, age, and origin. Really, the biggest struggle was figuring out how to narrow down the options I had available to me.

In the end, I just picked a few that were accessible immediately, and pressed play. I popped my cherry with Everywhere I Look, narrated by Helen Garner herself, and I was hooked! I moved on to Tiny, Beautiful Things – also narrated by the author, Cheryl Strayed. My podcast library languished, accumulating dozens of new episodes by the day.

I turned to Peter FitzSimon’s biography of Nancy Wake (a woman in whom I have a long-standing interest), and hit a snag. I was almost instantly bored. It was as though I could understand, logically, that the content was worthy of my attention but… couldn’t sustain it, somehow. I couldn’t stop my mind from wandering. I returned it after only a couple of chapters, and didn’t mark it as read on my Goodreads.

Here’s the thing that every audiobook reader has ever told me, but I’ve never really understood until now: your personal taste matters, and it will affect how you read audiobooks. Don’t expect your taste for audiobooks to be the same as your taste for traditional paper formats. Some people read exclusively non-fiction audiobooks, because they find fictional stories just can’t sustain their attention. Others love reading fiction in the audio format, because it feels like being read a bed-time story. Horses for courses, and all of that.

I’ve now burned my way through nearly a dozen, and here’s what I’ve established about my own audiobook tastes:

  • Books with short chapters work best, or essays (see: Everywhere I Look, and Tiny, Beautiful Things above)
  • I have a general preference for audiobooks with Australian narrators (not a hard-and-fast rule, but I find myself soothed by the familiar twang of my homeland)
  • I’m more interested in books I wouldn’t read otherwise, or books I’ve already read (like Pride And Prejudice). Reading a book on my Official To-Read List in the audiobook format doesn’t lend itself to taking notes or paying serious attention, the way I do for books I review here on Keeping Up With The Penguins.
  • I like lighter content, the treat-yourself fluffy books that you might read on the beach. Simon Vs The Homo-Sapiens Agenda was a winner, as was The Rosie Effect.

So, here’s my advice, if you’re curious and you’re wondering how to read audiobooks: just start. You don’t need to pay for a subscription service (though Audible offers a free trial, and they’ve introduced a more affordable pricing structure – and, of course, if you’re kind enough to sign up for one through a link from this site, I’ll get a tiny commission that helps me keep the lights on, and you’ll get my eternal gratitude as well as a library of audiobooks at your fingertips). Head to your local library’s website, and I can all-but-guarantee they’ll have a digital Discman-free option for you. If you’re stuck in the dark ages, they’ll probably still have a (smaller) stock of CDs on hand, to get your feet wet. It won’t be half as hard as you’re imagining, and it’ll be twice as rewarding as you expect.

Don’t be put off if the first (or second, or third) audiobook you try doesn’t hold your attention. Try, and try again. Think about how long it took for you to learn to read paper-and-ink books: where would you be if you’d given up after one or two failed attempts?

As for me, I’m a convert. I can’t bring myself to abandon podcasts entirely, but audiobooks have been worked into the rotation permanently. I probably won’t purchase a subscription to any service while my library offers such a huge range, free of charge. I also probably won’t specifically review audiobooks here on Keeping Up With The Penguins, but I probably will go back and re-read books I have previously reviewed – in fact, I’ve got The Age Of Innocence tee’d up and ready for me as soon as I’ve finished writing this post…

Do you read audiobooks? How did you learn to let go of paperbacks and love the earbud? Let me know in the comments!

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