By Tyler Aquilina
April 03, 2020 at 01:46 PM EDT
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With more time at home in this era of social distancing and self-isolation, we've got a lot more time for reading, right? It's hardly so simple. In this new EW series, staffers discuss how they're coping with experiences of anxiety and isolation through books. Here, Tyler Aquilina reveals how a long love of audiobooks and biographies is taking on new meaning.


Before audiobooks entered my life, I'll admit: I loved reading, but there came a point where I couldn’t (or maybe just wouldn’t) make time for it. I had an ever-accumulating list of books I wanted to get to, with little hope of crossing any of them off the list. So when I learned of Audible, Amazon’s subscription service that lets you download a new audiobook every month, I decided to give it a try. I’d long been hesitant to take up audiobooks; like many people I’ve talked to, I was worried I simply wouldn’t retain the information as well. But I reasoned that my time listening to podcasts had been sufficient training.

And lo, I was hooked. Audiobooks quickly supplanted podcasts and music on my work commute, and it wasn’t long before I found my own literary niche: long history books that could fill weeks of sitting in dreadful L.A. traffic. A month or so ago, I was knee-deep in one such colossal work: Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, a study of Abraham Lincoln and his skillful political maneuvering which led the U.S. through the Civil War. The book (which provides the basis for Steven Spielberg's Oscar-winning Lincoln) runs more than 900 pages in printed form, 41 and a half hours in audio form. I felt excited to have Goodwin’s richly detailed, exquisitely written prose in my ears for the next month or two.

Then came the quarantine.

Suddenly, 10-plus hours into Team of Rivals, I found myself deprived of my main venue for listening. (I realize this may be the first time someone has described themself as “deprived” of an L.A. commute.) I was already in too deep to back out, having been immersed by Goodwin’s masterful writing and unique approach to her subject matter: The book is not merely a portrait of Lincoln, but of the three men who competed with him for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination — William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates — and who all ended up serving in Lincoln’s cabinet. I wasn't ready to let go. But with nowhere to go for the foreseeable future, the prospect of listening to it in my room for days on end didn't exactly feel like a social-isolation balm.

I need not have worried, however, for Team of Rivals has become my most reliable instrument for relief from pandemic-related stress. Shortly after the quarantine began, I started taking daily walks around my neighborhood, something experts actually encourage. Getting out of the house each day, however briefly, can do wonders for your mental health, but for me, it was mainly a new source of listening time. The two really go hand in hand, though. A great book can be a welcome distraction from anxiety, an opportunity to escape, to take fleeting refuge in another world or another time. Combined with the healing power of a walk, it’s a uniquely effective respite.

Yet it’s not just the format, but the content, of this particular audiobook that’s helped to alleviate my stress. Team of Rivals may seem an odd book to describe as a comfort read, dealing as it does with the greatest crisis America has ever faced. But that’s just it: This book is an apt reminder that our country has faced, and survived, great crises before. Undoubtedly, the cost of this current one will be great — it already has been — but it’s imperative that we keep our eyes ahead, that we believe we can and will endure.

What’s more, in our hallowed sixteenth president, Team of Rivals presents a guiding light for how we can weather this tumultuous time. I started the book shortly after finishing Robert Caro’s biographies of Lyndon Johnson, a man who pursued power at all costs, and whose capacity for cruelty, deceit, and manipulation knew few bounds. Team of Rivals argues such ruthlessness is not required for political success, a reassuring thought after more than 100 hours with LBJ. As Goodwin writes in her introduction, “in the hands of a truly great politician the qualities we generally associate with decency and morality — kindness, sensitivity, compassion, honesty, and empathy — can also be impressive political resources.”

A reassuring thought, indeed, and one we would do well to keep in mind now. It is not toughness, stubbornness, and individualism we require in this moment, but kindness, sensitivity, compassion, honesty, and empathy — in our leaders and in ourselves. To make it through this crisis, we need what Lincoln once called for: malice toward none, and charity for all.

Heavy stuff. Maybe I'd better go for a walk.

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