When I was a kid, my mother read to me every night. Goodnight Moon, Harold and the Purple Crayon, The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes. All good. All classics. She read the Little House on the Prairie books to me until I was five, when I started reading them to her. At a certain point, as with training wheels on a bike, I read to myself exclusively. I don’t remember when it happened, but somewhere along the way, my mother stopped reading stories to me. There are so many benefits of reading, and all my life, I wanted to read a novel aloud with someone. Or a book of short stories. Or a novella. Or a short story. Hell, a longform piece would do. But it never happened.
I suppose I should qualify that by “all my life,” I mean for the past five years, after I first witnessed the phenomenon of two adults reading aloud to each other. In public. At a restaurant in Santa Fe, where I lived at the time. A good friend and her boyfriend came into the cafe where I was having breakfast, parked it at a corner table, ordered cortados, and commenced reading Gulliver’s Travels or something terribly wonderful. They looked so happy, nestled in the Southwestern sun with an old hardbound copy of the book, their hair catching the light and practically glowing.
I hotfooted it home and casually asked my boyfriend at the time if he’d want to read a book aloud together. Not only did he say no, he put the kibosh on any semblance thereof. “I hate reading out loud,” he said. He kind of hated reading, period, but that’s another story. (That said, he mysteriously devoured Infinite Jest one summer, so he’s got that on me.)
So I quietly read to myself, continuing the habit I’d developed at the age of five. I read a hundred books, as part of a graduate program, over the course of two years. I read Amy Hempel, Maile Meloy, Paul Yoon. James Salter. Junot Díaz. I discovered Andre Dubus, and whispered startlingly beautiful passages to myself in bed by lamplight. They were too melodic to be held to the page.
Eventually I left New Mexico and the boyfriend and moved back to my native New York. I graduated. I kept reading.
I read Laura van den Berg’s stories on a Laura Ashley blanket made of the softest wool in the world in Prospect Park. I underlined sentences. I tried them on in my mouth. It’s a big park. No one could hear me.
I read Scholastique Mukasonga and Karl Ove Knausgaard and Miljenko Jergović, and wondered what the words sounded like in their native languages. What they would sound like out loud.
At last, I started reading a book aloud with someone a few months ago. I suppose I should say that a book started being read to me, but — details. Slowly — very, very slowly — we’re making our way through F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. I think we’re on Chapter 15 or something. This is not that impressive, as the chapters are supershort and there are about 100. Or 61. Either way.
Be that as it may, the speed at which we read doesn't matter. I highly recommend this activity — in fact, I cannot recommend it enough. Read aloud with your favorite people. With your boyfriend, girlfriend, best friend, sister, brother. Read on dates. Read with your lovers out loud in the middle of the night. Read Rilke, Carver, Hemingway. Rumi, Hafiz.
Read aloud in the bath, in bed, in gardens and on picnic blankets and in cobblestone alleyways. On wide swaths of green grass. In the rain, with the window open and a cup of tea nearby. On the roof. In the backyard, stretched out across a bench or curled in a hammock or flat against the ground like a rock.
When I am read to, the words wash over me, a tumble of prose that gives form to sentences, paragraphs, meaning. Characters are more vividly imagined and details — weather, landscapes, the sounds of voices — more tangible. It’s a wholly different experience than reading to myself.
Both are lovely. I’d never want to give up my solo sessions, those long hours I spend alone in the pages of a book. But as I’d never want to choose between macchiatos or Earl Grey, so too would I never want to decide between these distinct types of reading. Each are deeply pleasant in their own right, but now that I’ve been inaugurated into the world of adult storytime, I know just how delightful it can be.
Images: Joao Paulo de Vasconcelos/Flickr; WiffleGif (5)