At any given time, I’m usually listening to at least one audiobook, half a dozen podcast series and a handful of new music albums. As the soundtrack to my daily life has continued unabated, I’ve recently started to wonder: How do we compartmentalize so many competing stimuli? How does the brain organize it all? As both audiobooks and podcasts continue to surge in popularity, I’d argue it’s becoming less and less clear where those classifications fall — and whether classification even matters. Case in point: These three new audiobooks might make you reconsider the categories into which publishers divide what we listen to.
The journalist Patrick Radden Keefe has made a career out of deep dives into fascinating characters — and he’s very good at it. In between his regular contributions to The New Yorker, he has published an exposé of the Sackler family and an account of the Troubles in Northern Ireland that’s so thrilling I listened to all 15 hours in just three days. With ROGUES: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels and Crooks (Random House Audio, 15 hours, 28 minutes), we’re treated to the same level of journalistic rigor, and the same passion for breaking open mysteries, in an unmistakably bingeable package.
“Rogues” compiles 12 years’ worth of long-form articles Keefe has written for The New Yorker, revealing his predilection for the margins of what we consider acceptable society. From one profile to the next, the moral threads swing wildly: Subjects include a Syrian arms dealer, a criminal defense lawyer specializing in the most heinous cases, and the chef turned globe-trotter Anthony Bourdain. But in each there is a commitment to telling the whole story, and revealing all dimensions of a person despite the obfuscations of hearsay, and even when that person has every incentive not to talk to a journalist.
“These are wild tales, but they’re all true,” Keefe says in the introduction, almost as if he himself thinks some of the stories feel too outrageous to be real. In the voice of the author, who also hosted the podcast “Wind of Change,” the narratives sound less like magazine pieces and more like the kind of layered, dynamic storytelling we’ve come to associate with the most gripping and exhaustively researched podcasts.
But while Keefe’s work is clearly anchored in the written word, that’s not the case for Max Cutler, the author of CULTS: Inside the World’s Most Notorious Groups and Understanding the People Who Joined Them (Simon & Schuster Audio, 15 hours, 9 minutes). Cutler is the founder of Parcast, a podcast studio known for churning out incredibly popular true-crime programs, and so perhaps predictably, “Cults” feels like a podcast turned into a book, rather than the other way around. Each of the 10 chapters follows a different cult leader in a similar format: brief introduction followed by a chronological deep dive, peppered with moments of psychological or sociological analysis. Charles Manson is described as exhibiting “a nearly complete tool kit of criminal psychology.” Adolfo de Jesús Constanzo, leader of the Mexico-based “Narcosatanists,” is introduced as “arguably the most sadistic and systematically bloodthirsty” of all cult leaders.
This audiobook plays into the same morbid fascination that has fueled the meteoric rise of true-crime stories over the past decade — and Cutler knows how to do it well. The stories here are nauseating, tragic … and utterly addictive. The production is read by a full cast, and unfortunately the quality of narration varies dramatically. But each chapter takes on the predictable arc of a podcast episode, leaving you wanting to go onto the next one immediately. In printed form, I could see “Cults” coming across as too surface-level: a gift book for your most macabre friend. But it thrives in audio form — even if that’s just because it ends up sounding like a podcast, as opposed to the first book by a podcasting company.
After listening to “Cults,” I wanted to immerse myself in something completely different: something that would loudly assert itself as distinct from the episodic format of a podcast. For that, I turned to BONSAI (Penguin Audio, 1 hour, 16 minutes), the groundbreaking 2006 novella by the Chilean author Alejandro Zambra, now being released in a new translation by Megan McDowell, and read by Gisela Chípe.
“Bonsai” is a piece of literature built on literature: Other authors and stories are woven through the narrative and make up the very fibers that hold together the central love story between Julio and Emilia. Early in the story, they lie to each other for the first time, both claiming to have read Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time.” For the couple, reading books and poems out loud takes on the “titillating” properties of foreplay. There is little to be surprised about in “Bonsai,” as the arc of the story is revealed in the first minutes. This is “a light tale that becomes heavy,” Chípe reads, with a half-concealed sense of humor that permeates her magnificent narration. But with such a delicate, deliberate treatment of character and emotion, plot isn’t the point. “Bonsai” is a feeling, one that refuses to dissipate long after the last words are spoken. And all that, in the time it takes to listen to an episode of “This American Life.”