Saturday, December 8, 2012

On reading aloud

I’ve been thinking a lot about the act of reading aloud lately, because my husband and I have taken to reading aloud for each other, usually for a half an hour or so right before bed, so that we don’t go to sleep still thinking about the academic work we’ve been doing.  (I’ve done that; it usually isn’t pretty.  Last time, I stayed up an extra hour frantically putting together a new paper topic when it turned out that a prominent music theorist had already written the exact paper I had intended to do – oops!  I ended up sleeping badly, waking up often to worry over the new idea.  When I woke up in the morning, I was exhausted – but I did have a viable new topic!)  Reading aloud has become, for us, a wonderful chance to connect in a way that has nothing to do with the academic work we’re doing.  We don’t read theology; we don’t read nonfiction.

It started when we moved halfway across the country last August.  It was a really long car trip, and unlike our other long drives, we couldn’t bring any audio books from the public library, because we wouldn’t be returning.  For a change of pace, I started reading aloud one of the children’s books that I had brought – E.B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan.  I hadn’t read it since I was a kid, and didn’t really remember it, and my husband had never read it at all (which was a real shame, since it’s such a great boy’s book with its strong male characters and powerful descriptions of nature and wilderness survival).  We ended up enjoying it so much that we decided to keep reading the book aloud after we had gotten settled in our new place.

Since then, we’ve finished The Trumpet of the Swan and have moved on to Christopher Morley’s excellent The Haunted Bookshop, sequel to the equally fantastic Parnassus on Wheels but which stands alone really well – in fact, my husband originally read this sequel first.  Our position is reversed from our first book – this time, I didn’t know the book beforehand, and he has been doing most of the reading.  Here are a few of the things I’ve been pondering:

  • Reading aloud takes a long time, just like audiobooks.  Much longer than normal reading, at least for us.  Unlike an audiobook, though, you can follow along in the text, which helps when you’re as visual a learner as I am.
  • I wonder whether this longer time it takes to get through a book helps or hinders the book’s strengths and weaknesses.  Are characteristics emphasized by being drawn out temporally, or are their their impacts and noticeability reduced?
  • Who reads?  For us, it’s generally my husband.  He’s a lot more experienced in public speaking than I am, which means that he speaks in a more healthy and sustainable way, and his voice doesn’t get tired as fast as mine does.  This is something I need to address, though – as a future professor, I’ll need to be able to talk for long stretches of time.  Plus, if and when we ever have kids, it would be nice to be able to do a lot of the reading aloud to them.  On the other hand, my husband does fantastic voices!
  • How much should you read at once?  I suppose this probably depends on the book.  For The Trumpet of the Swan, a children’s book, we always read a chapter at a time, but for Morley’s longer novel, we often read until I start falling asleep, and then find a decent stopping point.  This may not be the best plan.  I often need to be reminded what happened last before we start back up again.
  • What makes a good read-aloud book?  We’ve enjoyed our two books so far, and I’ve noticed that both of them have fairly simple prose with frequent humor.  Neither required too much thinking.  On the other hand, we used to frequently read poetry and Shakespeare aloud.  Those are by no means simplistic reading, and the slower pace of reading aloud often helped make these texts more easily understandable.
  • Is there a difference if you’re reading aloud to kids versus to an adult?  I can’t speak to this, as I don’t have children and haven’t done much recent babysitting.  I do know that this has been a wonderful relationship-building activity.  Cuddling is one of the things I most enjoy when he reads to me.  I’m sure someone wiser than I has contemplated why reading aloud – hearing your partner’s voice – is so wonderful in a romantic relationship.

Please, jump in here!  Do you ever read aloud?  With whom?  What did you read, and how did you select it?  Do you have any special family traditions involving reading aloud?  Do you have any fond memories of reading aloud with your parents – is it perhaps how you fell in love with reading in the first place?  I’d love to hear your thoughts!


  1. This post brings back a lot of memories! When my husband and I were first married we had a similar tradition of a little reading before lights out. One impulse was that he had not read a lot of 19thC fiction, so reading Victorian novels was a way to share some of my favorite books with him -- we even started with Middlemarch! We had the most fun with Dickens, especially David Copperfield. One thing we found was that reading aloud can make you quite unforgiving about style: we both hated Frankenstein, for instance (not in itself, necessarily, but as a read-aloud choice). Itwas interest to me, too, to realize that reading aloud can make you notice things you had skimmed over in reading silently. We eventually gave it up after we had kids because we were usually too exhausted when bedtime came. Also, reading to the kids, which we always did a lot of, rather took over. I agree that no matter who's involved, it can be a great part of a relationship: there's something very cozy about it.

    1. Wow, thanks for sharing. I wouldn't have thought Victorian literature made for good reading-aloud material, but now that you mention it, I bet it would! Such beautiful prose must be lovely to hear, not just to read. Perhaps someday soon you and your husband can return to this tradition.

  2. I love this post because it explores a topic that I feel passionately about. Of course I read aloud to my three sons on a daily basis (you already know that), but I've had many, many other experiences with reading aloud that have greatly enriched my life.

    My husband and I have read many books aloud together. I can still remember waking up on a Saturday morning and neither of us getting out of bed until after we had finished Jane Eyre. I can also remember a road trip home to Colorado when we were reading The Princess Bride, and we could not stop laughing. Even though it does take longer to read it aloud than silently, the benefits that come from being able to discuss and experience it together are priceless. Not to mention the cuddling time! It is just a perfect way to strengthen a marriage and friendship!

    My mom and dad both read aloud often to my siblings and me when we were growing up. I have twin brothers who have quite a few learning disabilities, including being severely dyslexic. The amazing thing is, they both love to read (even though when they were younger, sometimes they literally could not recognize the word "the" because it looked completely different). I think my mom deserves all of the credit for their love of reading and literature because she spent so much time reading to them and really helped them see what reading was all about.

    Anyway, your questions were really thought-provoking. I love talking about this topic (obviously!).

    1. I was definitely thinking about you when I wrote this post, and I hoped you'd chime in! I had no idea that other married couples read aloud to each other; I thought we were highly unusual. It's so nice to hear that we're participating in a tradition. If only it people talked about reading aloud more - it's such a lovely relationship-builder that I wish more people thought to try it.

      Thanks much for the recommendation of The Princess Bride - I bet that would be fantastic for reading aloud!