We were a sight to be seen. When we discovered we’d left the cord to connect the iPod to the car stereo at home, we found the best solution we could at a rural Wal-mart: $5 portable speakers. With one speaker roughly the size of a peach balanced on Mike’s shoulder and the other balanced on mine, we drove through the night to celebrate Christmas with my family while Tina Fey read us Bossypants.
Tina kept us company and made us laugh, but when we got home, the only advantage I could see to listening to her book over reading it in printed form (aside from the obvious company she provided on a long dark drive) was the inclusion of the audio of perhaps my favorite SNL sketch of all time. Even though we laughed heartily at other points in the book, the absolutely brilliant Amy Poehler/Tina Fey Clinton/Palin sketch got the biggest laughs of the whole drive. Rather than reading it on the page, smiling to myself at “I can see Russia from my house” and moving on, we enjoyed the audio of sketch in all its glory.
So when we set out on a nine-day road trip this summer, I made sure I packed the cord for the iPod and I went to the library to find more audiobooks. Following the success of Bossypants, celebrity memoirs seemed like a good neutral ground between me the history nerd and my husband the computer nerd.
As we headed west, we were accompanied by William Shatner reading his 2008 autobiography Up Till Now; on the trip back east, we had the company of Rob Lowe’s 2011 memoir, Stories I Only Tell My Friends. Friends, believe me when I say that I would not have enjoyed these books nearly as much on the printed page.
Bill Shatner is known for his overdramatic style, and as you might imagine, he reads an audiobook in the same way he might read anything else. He claims he doesn’t try to do this, it’s just what… comes out of his mouth… when he acts. His lack of consistency in volume makes this tough car listening, and we kept having to adjust the sound to try to catch what he was muttering at the end of a sentence. But Bill’s recounts of his experiences, especially of his post-Star Trek struggle to make ends meet and find meaning in his work, build empathy. Rather than thinking he was a big self-absorbed windbag, I decided he was playing a big self-absorbed windbag who evoked some amount of empathy. Try, just try, to listen to him talk about finding his wife, Nerine, in the bottom of their pool and the ensuing media circus (including the accusations that he had something to do with it) without your heart going out to him. And when he mentions many, many projects that seemed like a good idea at the time (The Transformed Man, “Rocket Man” and stand-up as Captain Kirk who thinks he’s funny but doesn’t know he’s funny, for instance), anyone who’s ever run with an epically bad idea will cringe along.
Shatner has learned the art of telling a joke at his own expense, and all of them play better spoken than written. Like him or not, he is a character, and that character relies heavily on the voice.
Stories I Only Tell My Friends was a little more of a gamble. For us (me especially, who lived until college in something of a pop culture vacuum), Rob Lowe is that super enthusiastic guy on Parks and Rec and, oh yeah, I think he was in St. Elmo’s Fire but I don’t exactly remember because we turned it off halfway through.
So Stories about some guy we barely knew could have been tedious, it wasn’t. Rob Lowe made us want to rent The Outsiders. He made me feel guilty for never reading The Outsiders. We chuckled at his backyard adventures with the Sheen boys and a Super 8 camera. We were riveted as he described his European bodyguard, whose life seemed like something out of a James Bond movie. We listened in stony silence as he recounted how he had been on a plane that had been a 9/11 dry run in early September 2001.
What made this sparkle as an audiobook, however, were Rob Lowe’s completely unexpected talents in the field of celebrity impressions. Cary Grant, Tom Cruise, Michael J. Fox, Andy Warhol, Christopher Walken… the list goes on and on. Rob Lowe’s run-ins with countless famous people would be no more than namedropping in the hands of a less gifted storyteller (and truthfully, the set-ups of “I went to the set of a sci-fi movie in 1976, guess what it was. It was Star Wars” got a little worn out by the end of the 80s), but the accompanying voice talent was the icing, whipped cream, and cherry on the cake. I was only sorry he didn’t get into any stories from Parks and Rec, because I really wanted to hear his impression of Amy Poehler (and I guarantee you he has one).
The rough part of reading autobiography and memoir is wondering how reliable the narrator is, how much the story is skewed. It’s not just wondering if you need to take it with a grain of salt, but deciding how many grains. Rob Lowe (I’m sorry, Rob Lowe has one of those names you just can’t separate) and Bill Shatner take you with them on their journey, make you like them, and make you hope that their story is fair.