Reading Aloud

On Saturday mornings, if all is right with the world and there’s nothing on the agenda which involves going anywhere or doing anything, I get the newspaper and bring it home and read it a bit with a cup of black tea or three. I used to just get the Sydney Morning Herald but I have been getting The Australian, for its quality arts supplement, for well over a year now too. Sometimes when I’m reading something to myself it will strike me that Laetitia may be interested in hearing it and so I may recommend reading the article later or tell her about it in some detail or even read out an excerpt aloud. It seems natural to share using the third method, however the line that usually caused me to snort or chuckle or gape is often from the sports section and about some arcane aspect of the laws of cricket or the biography of a former first grade rugby league player, which either wouldn’t make much sense to my audience of one or would make sense to that audience but the reaction wouldn’t be the same snort/chuckle/gape and therefore it seems a bit awkward to make the attempt.

That isn’t to say I don’t read things aloud. I do. We have always read things to each other. We also point out well-written or obscurely phrased lines of description from the books we are reading as we travel on the train together, and then typically exchange raised eyebrows or knowing nods or we do both.

There has been an acknowledgement, a silent acknowledgement of sorts perhaps, that it would be nice to read to each other more. Laetitia has mentioned it in the past and that’s why I have made clumsy and not altogether successful attempts to read out parts from the paper. The idea of reading out a book, an entire book, is not something that ever seemed entirely serious or likely. It seemed like it would be time consuming and it seemed as if there might be a difference of opinion over the title and when would be a good time to do the reading and so on. Or maybe these considerations were only in my mind, at the back, lurking, never really stated – it just seemed as if it would be too hard to make it happen.

Not that we’ve never read anything aloud. No, we did do that. We read A Christmas Carol last year, and that was fun. We made up voices – some of the characters sounded West Indian and Californian, not altogether by choice – but we already knew the story very well, had both read the book (which is short) a number of times, and it was a special occasion (the lead-up to Christmas, when Laetitia and I were both on leave for a few days).

The idea of reading a book one has never read before aloud, for the first time (obviously), is daunting, and to read it most nights before going to bed, squeezing in what you can when you can – well, those conditions are clearly different from taking it in turns to read a Christmas themed book at Christmastime with hours free over a number of days in which to do it.

But that’s what we did. I did. I mean I read aloud, from a book, for the benefit of Letitia and for my own benefit, as a bit of a challenge. It still seemed like a task that stood a good chance of not being completed when I started the first one. But I did finish it. And she finished listening. And we’ve read a few more since then as well. It’s surprisingly quick to do. Maybe my standards are low, and I certainly don’t read very quickly for myself (from necessity rather than choice), but I wonder if I even read very much slower when I’m reading aloud than I do otherwise and suspect that it’s only a bit slower. It’s also possibly the case that the reader will read on past a point when he might have put the book down if the listener is still interested, and that could explain my rather brisk progress through a few works over the last couple of months. You intend to read a chapter but when you finish one fairly quickly you keep going, and when you keep going you might as well finish the next one, if you can, and so you often do, and so on.

The process seems to me to be a collaborative one, because it is in so many ways: chief among them is that I would not be doing what I’m doing if there wasn’t an appreciative audience. Without wanting to be too much of a wanker, we share the experience and both get a lot out of it.

The first book I read was Northanger Abbey, a book I had always wanted to read, and quite a tricky prospect for a first time. Austen’s late Eighteenth Century sentences are difficult to read, when you are reading for emphasis and rhythm and seeking to stress the punchlines of jokes and so on. They tend to meander. Actually it just seems like they meander when you are reading them out. If you re-read, to yourself, you find that they are perfectly composed and balanced, with clauses and phrases, and the punctuation is all in the right places, and they are models of correct syntax and grammar. The problem is that they are often very long, and sometimes a sentence will start out describing a character one way and then change its mind, so to speak, and it’s easy to feel like you are floating as you read, the beginning of the sentence, and some clue to what the conclusion of it may be seems to be far away, and getting farther away, but the safe harbour of the full stop doesn’t seem to be approaching, or not approaching fast enough, and you feel a bit stranded. I do hope that makes sense.

It was difficult to read the dialogue in this book with silly voices – which had been the main purpose of the exercise – because Austen often doesn’t tell you who is speaking until they have made a speech, and sometimes it isn’t easy to tell who is/was speaking anyway. This may have been a particular problem for me and is not meant as a negative comment about the book. Indeed I would recommend it, just not to be read aloud if you haven’t read it to yourself first. I think I would have enjoyed the almost precocious teenager’s biting sarcasm much more if I had a read it differently. As it was I don’t think I did the book justice and found it hard to follow as I went, but all of that probably mean that my debut had been made in tough in circumstances.

Certainly the second book was easier. We read The Secret Garden, another book I had always wanted to read, and I must say I enjoyed it. The Yorkshire accent is fun to do, however patchily I managed to produce it, and all that tantrums and so on. Very enjoyable if not terribly challenging, which was a welcome change. I must admit that I thought some kind of plot twist would happen at the end, which might threaten to separate the children from their garden but that never happened because, I suppose, there was a twist right at the start when the girl survives dying of typhoid in India and then later the boy stops whingeing and allows himself to be brought outside – they’re twists, I suppose. And it’s a children’s book, so maybe you don’t need so many plot twists and turns. And maybe they are there and I’m just missing them.

We also read A Room With A View, which I enjoyed immensely. I don’t know why I never read anything by EM Forster before. I’ve seen the film of this book (definitely recommended too), but the writing is light yet nourishing. It’s better than it seems often, a deceptive quality, but then at other times it’s just exquisite. This story and the dialogue in it (with voices of course) were easy to reproduce. The author made it straightforward. I shall make a point of reading more of his stuff. A Passage To India, Howards End and so on.

And after that we read, back-to-back, Alice In Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass. They were most enjoyable of all, for sheer nonsensical fun and for voices and word games and for all the reasons that you read these books anyway – for the camouflaged cleverness and the sheer anarchy and enjoyment of a story which can go anywhere but where all the references have more than one meaning and are discreetly and precisely chosen and there is nothing random about how the story unfolds. I had read the second book before but only ever parts of the first, and it was good to read both from beginning to end (albeit over a number of days) like that. Reading these books aloud was as good as reading them in the usual private manner, but better with an appreciative audience.

A few nights ago we started yet another book I’ve always wanted to read but never got around to. Picnic At Hanging Rock starts well, and I’ve seen the film about eleventy-three times, so I know it’s going to get better, and it’s already intriguing.

Reading in this mode offers more than just an opportunity to attempt to hone a newish skill. It also has been beneficial in an analytical sort of way. When writing it is often helpful to read aloud, especially in the editing and refining phase of the writing, and through hearing your own voice you can detect bits which don’t read well, don’t flow, get stuck, or stick out. You can detect dialogue which doesn’t work and things which just sound funny. It can also alert you to typos and malapropisms which you might not pick up with the silent reading part of the brain. And in this way, the books which are easy to read out are written a certain way and those which are tricker are written differently. Some writers perhaps are after a more interior experience in the reader, where you sometimes only become aware of what a paragraph is really about when you complete it – but of course to truly read well for others requires you to know what the tone should be and where the emphasis should be and how to deliver the punchline, and all these things need you to know what you are reading before you read it (or to have read it before).

Some books probably just aren’t well suited to be read in this way anyway, and that’s fine.

I read ‘The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent And Depraved’, the Hunter S Thompson essay/article a week ago and Laetitia fell asleep while I was reading it. She was tired, but the point is that the material and the subject matter will always change and they need to be in sympathy for the process to be successful.

It has been a learning experience and I look forward to learning more, about how to read, but more importantly how to write. And a comment one of Laetitia’s friends made the other day puts the whole effort into yet another perspective. When told about Laetitia falling asleep some nights while I’m reading, she said that being read to in bed is a lovely way to fall asleep. That didn’t seem the point of the exercise, when we started, but to be honest it makes me sleepy too to read like that, and if we can both dream pleasant literary dreams, with some silly voices, then that can’t be a bad thing either.

Published in: on October 22, 2013 at 7:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

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