Road readers brake for gas

Humor: High gas prices threaten the literary savvy of drivers who listen to audiobooks.

My husband questioned my financial savvy the other night as I drove across town on gas that cost $2.94 a gallon to buy boxes of Jiffy corn-bread mix on sale three for a dollar.

"It'd be cheaper to grow our own corn and hire someone to grind it," he said.

I didn't dare confess the true reason for my dash across town. I'd bought an old Carl Hiaasen audiobook for a buck at a garage sale and had reached a cliffhanger. The Orange Bowl queen was in grave danger of being blown off her float. I couldn't wait another mile. I needed an excuse to drive – now.

While we all fret about high fuel prices jacking up the cost of everything from avocados to airline tickets, no one seems alarmed about the hit to literacy: With these ridiculous gas prices, audiobook-worms can't afford to read.

For example, $2 worth of gas used to get me two chapters in my thrifty Toyota. Now those two chapters cost more than $3. Even if the prose is pruned to short verbs and the narrator is a quick-tongued Easterner instead of a Southerner with an accent as thick as motor oil, I'm feeling the crunch.

I could take my audiobook indoors, obviously, and listen while idling on the couch. But for me that would defeat the purpose and the pleasure of audiobooks. I like the multitasking aspect – "reading" on my way to the dentist's office, while punching in my PIN number at the ATM, or waiting in the drive-through lane to place my sausage and biscuit order.

Hitting the open road with an open book feels oh-so-breezy; continuing my education while continuing down the highway behind a Wal-Mart semi is the American way.

For the longest time, I was an audiobook snob, though – sailing past the three aisles of recorded books at our local library. Surely, I thought, listening to Hemingway at 70 miles per hour couldn't be considered real reading.

Now, I'm convinced that "The Old Man and the Sea" is best read at 70 miles per hour; 75 might actually be better. I checked out the classic, which I'd managed to dodge in high school, and read it on a solo business trip from my driveway in the Missouri Ozarks to Colorado.

Before I'd reached Hays, Kan., old Santiago's marlin had been picked clean by sharks. I, too, felt gutted, but I was bone happy. One literary landscape behind me and miles and miles of classics to go.

Since then, my car has become a bookmobile of sorts, and I no longer stew about bumper-to-bumper traffic or road-construction slowdowns while the plot thickens and the protagonist finds a detour around life's snarls.

As other drivers do, I have an occasional outburst, but it's only because that spineless David in "The Memory Keeper's Daughter" can't summon the wherewithal to tell his sweet wife that he gave away their daughter.

Exorbitant gasoline prices, though, are putting the skids on my reading.

I've tried listening to the abridged – and thus more fuel-efficient – audiobooks, but that's like driving solely on the Interstate and missing all the stranger-than-fiction scenes and characters along the country roads and town squares of small-town America – such as the chain-saw artist who carves and sells giant wooden buzzards from his front yard and Sid's Diner, which serves hamburgers in hubcaps.

I've tried carpooling and listening to audiobooks at the same time, but that's next to impossible unless all the passengers are in the same audiobook club.

I have discovered that even family members who are passengers in the car can be a roadblock for an audiobook lover.

Last Saturday, for example, I volunteered to drive my car on the garage-sale circuit with my husband, because I was itching to get going on the mystery that I'd just checked out from the library.

"Sue Grafton will be joining us," I said. "I hope you don't mind."

"Who?" he asked. "She isn't that flake in your clogging class who collects old tap shoes, is she?"

I just sighed, turned the key in the ignition, and switched on National Public Radio.

"No," I told him. "You're thinking of Willa Cather."

Mark my words. If gas prices keep skyrocketing, we're going to be a nation of illiterates.

Already, some of us wouldn't recognize a good plot-driven book if it ran over us.

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