The Way I Read: Out Loud

This is the third in a very occasional ongoing series on this blog I call “The Way I Read” (all three installments are available here, for the curious).  This is my attempt to step back a little from my immediate reactions to novels—though have no fear, there will be more on George Apley this weekend at some point—to offer a little more insight into me as a reader.  This insight is offered to me as much as to anybody else, since often I find I haven’t ever considered the idiosyncrasies that make me the reader I am.  For today, I’m pondering how I am affected by my long commitment to reading aloud.

This in part is what is traditionally meant by “reading aloud”—that is, I read aloud to people who listen to me, most usually one person (my wife).  Together we’ve read aloud through books I was sharing with her for the first time (The Lord of the Rings and C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold, most memorably), and books that neither of us were familiar with going in (Connie Willis‘s two-part novel Blackout / All Clear and Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) are the first titles that occur to me). 

Connie Willis

Connie Willis, the most award-winning American novelist you may never have heard of: if you haven’t read her stuff, make it a priority. She deserves her own post here, sooner or later. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Obviously my reading in these circumstances is profoundly affected by the aspect of performance—at least some of my neurons are devoted to keeping track of which character has what voice, paying attention to my volume so that she can hear me clearly, etc.  Especially for the books that I read this way for the first time, like Connie Willis’s time-travel epic, I wonder how much that multi-level engagement with the text affects my read.  I think in some ways it becomes more emotionally effective—I don’t think I ever felt the impact of the death on the Bridge of Khazad-dum as deeply on my own as when I was experiencing it as my wife’s narrator, for instance.  In other ways, I think it does mean I’m less attentive to little turns of phrase or allusions that I might otherwise catch, since I’m not stopping to re-read (usually), and I generally don’t put the book down to think until we’re done reading for the day.  All of this impacts me as a reader (and as a husband, of course—take it from me, folks, reading aloud together is a wonderful thing for a marriage, or at least for the kind of marriage I have), but it’s not really what I’m thinking of.

What I mean to ponder is the tendency I have had since I was a very small child to read aloud to myself when I am alone.  I did this so often as a kid, usually while reading English novels with Cockney characters, that at one point I had a somewhat pronounced English accent—my mother had trouble explaining her small British child to grocery store clerks, I think.  I eventually figured out how to separate the real world from my wonderful fictional worlds.  But the reading aloud persists: I read the narrator’s part, often, although sometimes in dialogue-heavy books I pick a single character and voice only their dialogue.  Sometimes I read all the parts, but I find that a bit exhausting.  And I should say that this reading approach is intermittent—sometimes I only do it for a chapter or two, or even only a single scene, while sometimes it lasts much of the book.  And many books never get the “read-aloud approach” at all.

I was thinking about this over the last few weeks, and I’m wondering if it affects the books I like and dislike.  I’d imagine that this makes me favor lively narration, or dialogue with a bit of energy to it.  I think it’s possible that I’m always devoting some of my brain’s audio centers to the book—that is, even when I’m reading silently, I think I may be passing the words through a sort of audio filter in my head—and for that reason may favor turns of phrase that sound particularly nice as sounds, independent of their semantic meaning.  Might this make it harder for me to appreciate certain kinds of authors?  I’ve been trying to work that out—you’d think, for example, that this would diminish my appreciation for works in translation (given that the author’s original sound patterns are lost), but I’m a big fan of a wide range of translated fare, from Homer’s Iliad to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose to the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges.  This may, of course, merely go to the credit of skilled translators, but I’m not sure—I’ve appreciated Homer in the hands of multiple translators.  There’s a larger question here I don’t know how to address, which is this: why do I read out loud to myself?  I’m honestly not sure.  I’m sure there’s a reason, but it’s buried deep in my past: I learned to read at an unusually young age, but I can’t work out why that would have an effect like this.  It may suggest something deeper in how my brain tackles the act of reading (since, I have to say, the reading aloud happens almost unbidden: it feels like a very natural and almost unconscious act), but I leave that to the neurobiologists in the crowd.

So, my question to you is, is this reading-aloud-to-myself stuff weird?  (I almost asked “Am I weird?” but too many of you know me in real life.)  Is this something that a lot of us readers do and just don’t talk about, or am I part of a small minority?  If anybody out there does this with books, do you have any thoughts to add to my musings above?  And in general, does anybody have thoughts for me about how my approach to reading may affect my reading preferences?  I recognize I’m in uncharted territory here, but I figure a blog about reading has to delve into this kind of very specific personal reflection, at least now and then.  Here’s hoping this little window into my reading practice is at least interesting, if not illuminating.

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11 comments on “The Way I Read: Out Loud

  1. Randall says:

    James, I definitely do this. I have always attributed it to an overall preference for verbal contact and auditory intake– power points do nothing for me: just say it!– and an early dislike for the lonely aspect of reading. It was when my sister and I started reading aloud to each other that I really started to love books. I have spent many hours whispering books to myself, often in order to get the accent or voice of a character right. It is a detriment in situations such as graduate school where the volume of reading overwhelms. Faulkner takes me fuhevah!

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Randall, thanks for being the only person (so far) to share my strange behavior. 🙂 I wonder if it has to do with us both being homeschooled? (Or maybe it’s just a fate suffered by gentlemen who are both literary and devilishly handsome.) 😉 I think I’m usually able to avoid the necessity of reading out loud when reading for academic purposes, but I’ll have to think on that a while. Anyway, since I have you here and you read the same way, what do you think: does this affect the kind of books we like? Or is it just an alternative way of reading that has no particular impact on how we evaluate the books we encounter?

      • Randall says:

        Ah! we striking rogues are heaped with fardels great and numerous. I wish I had your ability to turn it off. I started making my wife read to me last semester, because even aloud that woman can down a novel in two sittings. Now that I consider the possibility I think it does dictate, to some extent, which books I love and which I can’t stand. I tend to get bored with modernists– the ones lacking a southern drawl– with all their “clean,” blunt phrasing. Not that there aren’t those of them who can turn a phrase nicely, but I role my eyes a lot more, and it may well be that it doesn’t sound interesting enough. Spanish language writers– even though I have only read them in translation– take me incredible places with their sounds. Poetry appeals to me first on an auditory level, as well. People comment on my own poetry’s sound more often than any other aspect, and when writing, that is always my first “form”: how does it sound?

  2. SilverSeason says:

    Well you have me. I have ordered a copy of Doomsday since Connie Willis is a writer I don’t know at all.

    I am a fast, perhaps too fast reader, and I usually don’t read aloud. If I find a passage that I particularly like or mostly don’t understand, it helps to deliberately slow down and hear the passage in my head. That is the only way to “read” poetry that works. In an earlier comment about style I identified one kind of bad style as overwriting, and that overwriting really reveals itself when you read aloud (or listen in your mind).

    For some years I did a lot of driving and consoled myself for the hours on I95 by listening to books on tape. Two things to avoid: abridgements and overly-dramatic readers. A good reader who respects the text makes all the difference. Maybe I should go back to that, give the eyes a rest.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Excellent! I think you won’t be disappointed by Connie Willis—I will say that she has two moods, one of which is lightly comic, and one of which is much more serious and dark. I like both, but prefer the serious and dark, so for me, Doomsday Book is the novel I always recommend people start with. But I know a lot of people who prefer Willis’s comic voice, and suggest people read her novella entitled Bellwether instead. Regardless, I hope you enjoy it, and regardless of whether you do or don’t, I hope you’ll leave a comment letting me know how it went! I own and have read all of the novels she’s written solo (she did some co-writing of a couple of novels for teenagers that I haven’t picked up yet) and most of her short stories, so it’s always interesting to me to hear how other folks view her work.

      I know what you mean about reading “too fast”—I have to catch myself sometimes. Poetry often, for me, really has to be read aloud before I can enjoy it. Books on tape have always been hard for me: there are a few I listened to as a child, but it just doesn’t work very well for me usually. I think it may be because I’m used to running my own “audio track” in my head as I read, and so taking in what is essentially someone else’s audio track feels a bit too imposing, as though someone has commandeered my reading of the book. But I have seen recently some audiobooks written by excellent actors who I imagine have done lovely jobs. I should track one down and see if that makes a difference!

  3. Donna says:

    I find that I have to read aloud — or at least word-by-word in my head rather than sight reading — whenever I encounter 18th or 19th century literature especially the first few chapters of any Dickens novel. This Spring my husband and I were each reading Don Quixote and we found ourselves continually reading passages aloud to each other. It was quite nice.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      This is interesting. I think I enjoy the reading aloud most when there are dialects or elaborate, old-fashioned phrasing. About the only novel I’ve read recently that I think I read aloud in its entirety is Godric, by Frederick Buechner, which had that voice intentionally. Maybe this is shaped by the fact that I read a lot of these more “classic” and less contemporary works when I was young? Although I feel like I did this even with books that didn’t have accents or dialects included…..hmmm.

  4. Paul Hamann says:

    Heavy dialect: aloud, but it’s usually a decoding mechanism. I tend to read silently, and I’m not sure why. I also read unusually early, but can’t remember reading out loud. This actually surprises me, since I’m very verbal, love the sounds of words, am into poetry, and (I think tellingly) talk to myself so often that I honestly worry I’ll get caught and institutionalized (thankfully, only my wife catches me). As a result, I likely go too quickly and miss the texture and smell of some of the flowers along the way, but I think I can get transported by ideas as much as by the sounds of words.

    I find your reading aloud to/with Betsy to be very romantic. Part of this is because reading aloud is central to the key romantic relationship in Chad Harbach’s -The Art of Fielding-.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Paul, thanks for sharing, especially because you and I have similar histories as readers (how early we read, what we like to read and why, etc.) and yet we’re on different tracks as far as how we read when alone. It suggests to me that maybe this is more nature than nurture, although I’m hesitant to draw too many conclusions as yet. 🙂

      And thanks for the comment re: Betsy and I….I find it romantic too, and I’m sorry that it’s harder for us to make time for it now, as a married couple. We did much more reading aloud when we were dating, and I miss it. You’ve further captured my attention re: Harbach, so I really do need to find this book and add it to the nightstand. I promise a reaction once I have it in hand!

  5. theduckthief says:

    I read aloud occasionally, but for me it takes far too long to get through a story this way.

    If I am reading aloud I do so with a variety of accents as this makes the story more enjoyable. The difficulty is remembering who is what accent and I assign them completely randomly.

    Reading aloud I find works best with works that are meant to be aloud or lend themselves to be read aloud. Poetry and plays seem to work best as I find its easier to gauge their meaning when hearing the words rather than reading them. I did this most recelty when reading Macbeth. The archaic diction and turns of phrase made so much more sense when I read them aloud and when I watched several film versions rather that the static reading off the page.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      I agree about the pacing—I often drop the reading aloud when I start to feel “impatient” and want to move forward more quickly, only to pick it up again when I hit a patch where I feel like taking the pace more slowly. Maybe it’s the way I moderate and manage my reading speed? I think I’m a bit more deliberate about accent assignments than what you’re suggesting, which is interesting to me: it sounds like you just want the voices distinct from each other, where I feel more like I’m “casting” the roles. Suggesting I think of this as more of a performance than a personal thing? Hmmmm.

      I certainly agree re: plays (and poetry, to a slightly lesser extent)—I almost have to read Shakespeare out loud, and I find it’s much more accessible that way, usually.

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