Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Reading out loud is like Driving - Which side of the book are you?

When it comes to driving a car, I refuse to have my husband as a passenger. Even when I've gone to pick him up from somewhere, I prefer to slip across to the passenger's seat and let him get behind the wheel. This is not because of sexist opinions that the male should always drive. He's just better at it than I am. He has a perfect sense of direction and finely-tuned reflexes. But most of all, when I drive he clutches the sides of his seat and looks agitated, making digs about how bad I am. He's simply the best person for the job. In the same way, when it comes to reading stories out loud, I believe I'm the best person for the job.

When we first got married, we headed off on a holiday with a trilogy of novels to read together. We'd intended to take turns reading, but it quickly became clear that Andrew wasn't the right person to do it. He was too erratic, often pausing to figure out words he felt tough to get his tongue around. Sometimes, he was so busy just trying to read sentences out loud that he had to pause to glance over them again for their sense of meaning which interrupted the flow. It didn't take long for him to decide that as I enjoy reading out loud, I could do it permanently. I was happy with the deal, as I'd been reading out loud to my mum since I was very small.

Since then, I've had years of opportunities, as I've been homeschooling our three kids. To be honest, I'm not keen on being on the other side of the book and listening. I like to have control. I can choose the right inflections to use in different characters' voices and use accents if possible. I get to utilise dramatic pauses at moments I choose, and emphasise whatever I want to, whether or not it's written in italics. I have some degree of control over how I want my listeners to feel about the characters, as it all comes out in the delivery. I love to be the person who knows what's coming, to anticipate the surprise on my listeners' faces, the gasps of shock or bursts of laughter. Not least, I appreciate it when one of the kids comes to me holding the book, saying, 'It's time to hear another chapter.'

This hobby isn't everyone's cup of tea. I had to smile as I thought of three famous novels in which an unwilling young character is coerced (or forced) into reading out loud to an antagonistic elderly person.

1) Little Women. Jo is a hired companion to rich, crabby old Aunt March (who is actually her great aunt). It's a hassle for poor Jo to be pinned down to a seat, reading the dry old books Aunt March wants to hear. The main thing which helps her bear it is that she can duck into the library to find a book of her own choice for silent reading when the old dame nods off.

2) The Book Thief. Young Liesel Meminger manages to soothe the angst and panic of the neighbours on her street, as they huddle in the bomb shelter, dreading what might happen suddenly. She considers herself to be handing out words, but doesn't expect mean old Frau Holtzapfel, who spits on their door, to come knocking, asking for Liesel to come and keep reading to her in the privacy of her own home. To Liesel's dismay, her mama, Rosa Hubermann, agrees, as Frau Holtzapfel promises to stop the spitting, and to hand over her coffee ration in return.

3) To Kill a Mockingbird. Jem Finch is ordered by his father, Atticus, to read to bedridden, nasty old Mrs Dubose. There is no way he can wriggle out of it, as it's ostensibly his punishment for losing his cool and going berserk in her garden. Even though she behaves very strangely during the reading sessions, not until later does Jem discover the real reason for her request. I'm sure his reading probably did help distract her.

Even though these three situations appear less than ideal on the surface, they show the power inherent in reading out loud, evident in the creation of truces and ties which weren't there in the first place. The power of a good story breaks down walls and barriers between people who, on the surface, are very different. The act of a reader and listener sharing an author's intentions and inspiration is an excellent way to promote good feeling between them, even when it wasn't there to start with. And I'm sure Jo, Liesel and Jem would all look back on those reluctant sessions with nostalgia. Jem's little sister, Scout, who went along for moral support, certainly did.

So I like to be the reader, and my husband and children prefer to be listeners. When it comes to reading aloud, which end of the book do you like to find yourselves?


  1. Yeah, I'm the same, Paula. I like to be the one to read aloud. I especially get frustrated with slow readers.

    1. Hi Lynne,
      It would seem to be a skill we're either born with or not.

  2. Interesting post Paula. I haven't had a book read to me since I was in primary school, so it's a bit hard to judge. I've thought about getting audio books out of the library lately, but wonder if I'd concentrate well enough with someone else doing the reading. I think my mind would probably wander.

    I've been doing a lot of reading out loud in the last year though, as I've volunteered to be a Pyjama Angel with the Pyjama Foundation. That means I read to a little 7-year-old girl in foster care once a week (as well as other fun learning activities). She's getting to the stage now where she is starting to read, but I still do the bulk of it. I've gotten a lot better at it over time. It makes such a difference if you read things with expression and drama (and sound effects).

    At the Christian Writers Conference a couple of years ago, I went to a poetry session run by Lyn Hurry. She played a CD where a lot of famous actors read out poetry. There were people like John Cleese reading funny ones and people like Ian McKellen reading serious ones. It made such a difference to hear them read well. Maybe I'll head off to the library and check out an audio book :)

    1. Hi Nola,
      I've felt the same way regarding audio books, although I know some people love them. My mind tends to drift off into daydreams or related trains of thought, and I'm sure it's easier to put down your book, or turn back a few pages, then having to rewind the audio to the point where your attention left.

      I like the sound of the Pyjama Foundation. Once I googled it and found out that it's not operating over here in SA. Not yet anyway. Good on you for volunteering in what sounds like a very rewarding activity.

      I've been reading the Harry Potter series to my son, Blake, who has just turned 11. We're near the end of the 5th. I'm sure that when he gets as old as his brother and sister, I'll have to look for some other outlet :)

    2. Hi Paula - Hopefully the PJ Foundation will be in SA before too long. It's in Victoria now. It's a great organisation. Very rewarding. Though I guess there are other avenues out there where people could still volunteer to read to kids as long as they have blue cards (e.g. hospitals, migrant/refugee centres).

    3. Nola, I hope they do. As far as volunteer opportunities go, it sounds like a very worthy one which would suit me to a tee. But as you say, opportunities to do this will be around everywhere.

  3. I love both sides. My voice tends to give out after two chapters (how do you keep going through a long book?) so I'm willing to let someone take over, preferably my oldest. She's a gifted storyteller. When she lectors at Mass, people come up after to tell her how much they get out of the readings when she does them. She has quieted a room full of young children and impressed classrooms at the university. I wish I had that level of storytelling ability!

    1. Yes, I'm sure such gifts are natural. What a great one to have. Sometimes I remember your storytelling club of homeschoolers. Perhaps that was all good practice for her.
      I've read aloud a lot of big books during the years, starting to those I read to my mother when I was little. I'm sure they'd make a tall tower if stacked on top of each other :)