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Monday, January 30, 2012

Reading Aloud

We’ve always done it. Read aloud to each other, I mean. At times we have shared whole books this way, reading as long at bedtime as the reader’s voice holds out and then closing the book until the next night. We also enjoy reading aloud on long car trips, stopping for conversation and then taking up the narrative again, reader and driver thus traveling two simultaneous trips together, one through surrounding space, another in shared mental images called forth by a writer’s words.

A short list of older books I can recommend for this sort of reading would include the following: Wind in the Willows; Mary Norton’s The Borrowers; Shantyboat, by Harlan Hubbard; any of Wendell Berry’s novels; A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith; The Trees, by Conrad Richter; Bruce Catton’s Michigan books; An Hour Before Daylight, by Jimmy Carter; good books on writing, e.g., Stephen King’s On Writing.

Books not to try: anything by Raymond Chandler or anything else depending overmuch on dialogue without noting who said what. Too confusing trying to keep speakers straight—doesn’t work.

Naturally, there are a near-endless number of good newer titles, fiction and nonfiction, that would make good reading aloud. What would you recommend?

Why not audiobooks? People have asked me if David and I ever listen to them, and the answer is that we have tried them--on rare occasions. After I’d read King’s On Writing to myself and then read most of it aloud to David, we listened to the whole thing once again in the car. That was good. Another time we listened to a Tony Hillerman mystery. And once we dragged ourselves (or were dragged, I guess I should say) through most of On the Trail of the Assassins, with actor Ed Asner doing the reading and pronouncing “Guy Bannister” in such an exaggeratedly sinister tone every time the name occurred that we couldn’t help laughing, though the subject matter was hardly amusing. If I were traveling alone, I might listen to recorded books more often, but traveling with David, I infinitely prefer his voice or mine, and he doesn’t argue with my preference.

For one thing, our choices are as infinite as the books we take with us or buy along the way. The main advantage, however, to my way of thinking, is that when I’m reading aloud or David is reading to me, no recording is setting the pace, and we can easily stop and start, as reader and driver feel the need or desire. Sometimes we pause to discuss what we’ve been reading, and other times we just want to immerse ourselves in the landscape outside the car windows—because one does tend to make what elementary school teachers now call “mind movies” while reading or listening, and it’s hard to appreciate fully one’s surrounding travel scenery with a different movie playing in one’s head. 

I’ll go further with this idea: we don’t read as much in the car as we might otherwise because I like to be where I am, not somewhere else. Just as I normally hate expressways, it’s on expressways that I am most likely to say, “Would you like me to read a while?” Reading aloud is good when the view is boring, not when it’s beautiful!

And in Michigan, in my opinion, the view is almost always beautiful.
Now of course (going back to the business of taking a pause in the reading) one can stop and start a recording, too (tape or disk or whatever), but somehow it seems to require more effort, and certainly it doesn’t usually seem worthwhile to stop and go back if one misses a single word, whereas we can easily do that when we read aloud to one another. "He picked up a what?" Easily answered. Nothing missed.

But maybe the best part of reading aloud to each other is the intimacy involved. Any listening together involves sharing, but reading to each other also has the element of giving and receiving. The passenger can be doing something for the driver. Obviously, then, reading in bed is also important for reasons other than the story: It’s a way the reader can turn to his or her book before sleep without shutting out the other person.

P.S. from two years ago: "David and I took turns driving south yesterday, and since the beautiful prairie is (it cannot be denied) somewhat monotonous after a while, while one of us drove the other generously read aloud for many miles, David from Andrei Codrescu’s The Disappearance of the Outside and I, from the introduction, Inagua: An Island Sojourn, by Gilbert C. Klingel. From the repression of thought in Stalinist Russia to a storm-battered sailboat on the Atlantic in 1929, we took turns keeping whoever was driving in a state of high alert rather than succumbing to road fatigue."

That's what I'm talking about.


Gerry said...

My favorite book on tape is "Angela's Ashes" - unabridged, read by McCourt himself. We listened to that for many hours during our weekend drives up to The Cottage and back home again, always in the dark. And then, at the other end of the spectrum, there's always Burt Reynolds reading Spencer novels. Nutella for the ears.

Can't help it, I love stories, wherever I find them.

Gerry said...

Spenser, isn't it. Ah well.

P. J. Grath said...

We so rarely drive in the dark any more, except around our own tri-county region that I forgot about that situation, and you are right--it's perfect for listening to books on tape or disk or whatever! "Nutella for the ears" is great! Original with you? Sounds like you, Gerry!

dmarks said...

I've read some of those, like "On Writing" and "The Borrowers" (6 or 7 books).

I do listen to books outloud, read from the Kindle.

As for Andrei Codrescu, the funniest thing I ever heard on public radio was when Codrescu went to the Kafka Museum in Prague.

He talked about all the displays. He mentioned that not only did they have the skull of Kafka from when he was an adult, they also had the skull from when he was a child as well.

P. J. Grath said...

We listen a lot to NPR while on the road, dmarks, and have heard Codrescu many times. Again, the only trouble with the radio is that we have to wait until the end of a story to discuss it, or we lose other parts. Last Thursday, for instance, as we were traveling 115 to Cadillac, Ziebniew Brzezinski was on Diane Rehm, and the conversation was fascinating. After the show, David and I continued to talk about things Brzezinski had said. I had wanted him, Brzezinski, to say more about the good work of Jimmy Carter. He did mention the Middle East and how the Carter administration was the only one to make significant progress toward peace in that region, but nothing of Carter’s energy independence program. I realize foreign policy is his main focus, but energy and foreign policy are inextricably intertwined, and that’s part of what David and I went on to discuss. Anyway, yes, great stuff to listen to on the radio, also.

dmarks said...

"Last Thursday, for instance, as we were traveling 115 to Cadillac..."

I find that to be a radio free zone after a point. WTCM-AM fades out, as does the Harrieta NPR station.

P. J. Grath said...

Our signal went wonky for a while, and we were afraid we wouldn't get the rest of the program, but it came back a way down the road. This was either IPR or CMU--IPR, I think.

Kathy said...

I never think of reading aloud; this is a good reminder. Barry is still having a rough time with his knees--it's been more than a year--and time weighs heavily on him, as he's always been an active person. Perhaps we should try reading aloud sometimes. Thanks, Pamela.

P. J. Grath said...

Let me know if you find something you both particularly enjoy, Kathy. We like really engaging travel narratives, for instance.