Saturday 13 April 2019

Reading Aloud - an activity for grown-ups by Deborah Swift @swiftstory

Is there anyone else out there that reads whole books out loud to their adult partner? Is it really an activity for grown-ups?

Well, my partner and I have taken to doing this, and it is a great way to share a story. The tricky part is finding something you will both enjoy and are both willing to invest the time in, as reading aloud to someone else is much slower than solo reading, and it can take more than a month to finish the book. But the rewards for a writer are that you develop a sense of hearing how the story flows, and of finding out what sort of language really triggers the imagination. You become more aware of the sound and texture of the language, and less concerned with writerly devices. You also become much more aware of how historical words or terminology, or unpronounceable names can trip you up.

Reading it yourself is much more active than listening to a "talking book" as you have to make your own decisions on tone of voice, pauses, and dramatic interpretation. It improves fluency of reading, and the ability to listen and take in a story. It is also lovely to be read to by someone you know well, to be delighted by their characterisation and to delight them in return. It gives some shared memories and shared ideas about history, and something to discuss after each 'reading.' We have fond memories of scenes from the books we have read.

Choosing books that we both fancy reading leads to interesting discussions (dare I say arguments) in bookshops, whilst we pick our next choice. We rarely read kindle books because there's something nice about handing a physical book over, at a cliffhanger, and saying, gleefully' 'Your turn.'

We have had one disaster - we read one Booker winner which had rave reviews and it started out with us both loving the language. But unfortunately it seemed to be all writing and no substance, and very repetitive and dull when it was read aloud, and we had to force ourselves through gritted teeth to read to the end. Mind you, hating something is as much a bonding experience as loving it, when it's shared.

Often we will turn to our shared book instead of TV, as it can be picked up and put down at any time that suits us, and packed in the luggage when we go away.

Much more enjoyable than the Booker nominee (which will remain nameless) were Lindsay Clarke's two books about Troy, The War at Troy and Return from Troy which, despite their weight, were gripping, readable, and fun to read out loud. Once we had read the first, then we had to have the second, and it did not disappoint - a cast of gods, heroes and ordinary mortals against the seething background of the ancient world. Jealous gods throwing thunderbolts about led to hilarious use of our rather amateur acting skills, but good writing drags you in, no matter how ham our readings might be.

What works best for us are historical novels where the history does not outweigh the plot, and books where we have a chance to employ the voices of multiple characters. (Though I must admit we always have varying pronunciations of all the names ...)  We are both a little hooked on the ancient world of Greece and Rome, and can recommend The Bull from the Sea by Mary Renault. This was superb, and had us both in emotional knots by the end of the book. So much so that we were both really sad to see the last page. The prequel to that, The King must Die is also a great read for reading aloud. This year in a similar vein we have read Stephen Fry's two books Mythos and Heroes.

Books with short sections or chapters work particularly well, so we don't wear out our voices, though of course tea or wine add to the experience.

Over the past few years we have varied our diet by reading some light-hearted reads  such as The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson and one of our other reads this year was The Order of Time which coincidentally is discussed in the previous post by Antonia Senior.

Other books we've enjoyed reading aloud, and that might appeal to history fans are books about language, such as The Story of English in 100 Words, and The History of the World in Six Glasses (which includes the history of tea, beer etc.) As well as these, we've read books on our common interests in martial arts, crafts, philosophy and poetry. We've been doing this since 2010 and our most prolific reading year was 2012 where we read 11 books together. (apart from our own other reading). In 2016 we only read three, but we will beat that paltry record this year as we've already read three and its only April. But apparently we are not the only ones doing this -  reading aloud for adults is having a resurgence, here's another article about the benefits from The Guardian.

And here on Atlas Obscura, a humorous article about testing the 19th Century's favourite dating tactic - Reading Aloud. The  couples read Modern Painters by John Ruskin and the results of the experiment are fun to read. (even if not aloud!)

So - if there is anyone out there who can recommend suitable reading aloud books, it would be great to have some more suggestions. Do comment with yours!

Find me and my books on my website
Emile Munier - Reading Lesson
Pictures from wikipedia


Beth Elliott said...

I loved this post and agree about the positive experience of reading aloud. We always did this as a family and the books we read aloud still remain in our memories due to the shared or disputed interpretations.

The Goldfish said...

My chap and I do this a lot. We both have chronic health problems and it started over Skype when we were long-distance lovers, one of us would be struggling with pain etc. and the other would read to them when we couldn't do much more to help. We worked our way through books that really mattered to one of us that the other hadn't read yet and in the last year or so we've been doing a "UK Tour", reading a novel for each county of the UK and Ireland, with a mixture of audiobooks and reading to one another. It's quite tricky to find novels based in specific places - there are infinite options for some places (e.g. Cornwall, any of the Yorkshire counties), but other places not so much (poor Northamptonshire has very few novels in it). At some point, we intend to blog about this somewhere so it's all documented.

We're very lucky that we both have pretty broad tastes and we try to vary genre as much as possible and include as diverse a group of writers as we possibly can. It's an absolute joy to share a good book this way - sometimes more than that, as the very best books have affected us both very deeply. But something else it has allowed us to do is to get through pretty weak books. And not-great books are completely fascinating in their own right - the way you can see the good idea - often several good ideas - a writer had and can try and work out quite where they went wrong and how it might be fixed. When reading on my own, I can't be bothered with a not-great book (way too many good books out there) - together, we can giggle at it, analyse the nonsense, and press on. Because there are inevitably connections between books set in a specific place in the UK and Ireland, we can often see where one writer failed on a similar mission where another writer pulled it off.

Deborah Swift said...

Hi to you both! So glad we're not alone.That's such a good idea, a UK tour! We might try that or something similar. And you're right about it making it harder to give up on books that don't hit the spot immediately.