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.

Blogroll Shoutout II: Day of Reckoning

I was thinking the other day that it had been a while since I had posted anything steering people to some of the blogs/bloggers I have met in this thing we apparently call “the blogosphere”—which sounds for all the world like some kind of alien technology—but when I actually looked up my last “blogroll shoutout” I found that, in fact, A) I have only done this once, and B) it was two and a half years ago, or ten oil changes ago, depending on how you reckon time.  Regardless, I said to myself that I really ought to doff my cap at a few folks who are posting things I think are worth your attention.  And then yesterday happened and I thought, “man, get this post written!”

By “yesterday happened”, I mean that Jillian at A Room of One’s Own—familiar to anybody here who’s been following my ongoing discussion with Jillian in the comments on Gone With the Wind posts—posted an incredibly kind and complimentary post about my blog and why it might be worth people checking it out.  This single-handedly produced the busiest day at Following Pulitzer in its three year history: plenty of new folks following the blog, leaving comments, leaping around to see reviews and posts from the pile of things I’ve made it through thus far.  So I was incredibly grateful—Jillian’s readership are a thoughtful and friendly crew, and anybody from there who decides to look in on me here is more than welcome!—and I thought I would steer folks Jillian’s way in return.  I have to say, if you haven’t hopped over to her blog already, you really ought to take the journey: Jillian’s posts are all really well-composed and reflective, and she engages with a lot of classic titles that I know appeal to folks who wander through here.  Just as an example, check out her recent review of Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall: she digs into the books she reads, and I find her energy in praise of the books she loves really inspiring.  Her comments about why she reads, how she handles reading fatigue, what she loves about reading, etc., are all really sharp also, so even if you’re not looking for book reviews, there’s plenty of other conversation happening there.  Also, if you’ve been thinking of digging in and reading a few classic novels yourself, there’s an enormous group at her blog called “The Classics Club”, and it looks to me like a great place for chatting about books and getting tips on what to read next—if I didn’t already have my own Sisyphean task to complete, I’d be seriously gearing up to join the group and read a slew of books that I know people assume that I’ve read (and which I’m betting I’ll love once I finally do).

Some other recent visitors here have blogs that have caught my eye—I’m still just getting to know their work, but I’m liking what I’m finding out there.  I could list a number of blogs that I’ve bookmarked to return to, but here are two that I’ve seen enough of to know I’ll be back to.  Donna’s blog, Scrambled Books, is a great example of a book that’s a bit less list-bound than mine (or even Jillian’s)—she’s tackling a few Victorian classics this summer, but Donna’s interest in historical fiction (and more generally in reader’s advisory, based on her experience working in the public library) is a great reminder to me of the breadth of reading I want to maintain—I don’t want to read “all Pulitzers, all the time”, and I think Donna’s doing a great job balancing looks at classic titles with some more recent fare that’s definitely worth reading.  And one of yesterday’s arrivals, SilverSeason, is maintaining a blog called Silver Threads that takes on literature in a very different way: rather than posting reviews, she posts these remarkably detailed reflections on particular elements in a book she’s read (a reflection on the choices Jane Eyre makes, for example).  I’ve only looked around a little, but I think the approach she takes is very intriguing (and often really illuminating), so I commend her to your attention also.

Tenzin Gyatso (14th Dalai Lama) 2008, 2005 & 2...

Okay, Tenzin Gyatso would in fact probably have handled Margaret Wilson’s book with a lot more grace than I did. People tell me I’m a “happy kind of guy” but I’ve got nothing on this man. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lastly, although I have no personal connection with the blogger, I have to admit that I’ve started reading Dead White Guys: An Irreverent Guide to Classic Literature somewhat regularly.  Yes, the attitude at that blog is a good Kentucky mile away from the much more reserved and composed tone I generally strike here (okay, nobody haul out the Able McLaughlins review as counter-evidence: the Dalai Lama would have cursed like a sailor at that book).  Anyway, DWG’s blogger is doing something that I definitely appreciate: demystifying the classics a bit, and treating them like a gang of rough-housing old buddies.  Her blog takes in movie adaptations as well as books, and does some of the pondering of why/how/what to read that Jillian does—though with a much more crass vocabulary.  It’s not for everybody, but I’m finding it a nice addition to the other blogs I read, and I think there are a lot of genuine insights in there amidst the humor.

All right, that’s not an exhaustive list by any means, but I think each of these folks is doing work that’s worth your time, and hopefully from their blogs you can continue out into the world of book bloggers—as I’m discovering recently, there are a lot of us out here, and there’s a lot to gain from the conversations we can have.  If you find a great book blog out there, drop me a comment and let me know!

The Way I Read: Through the eyes of a teacher

I was on the train to Boston when I opened up an old friend, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, The Whale.  Having moved from the West Coast to Chicago two months ago, and having therefore been out of the sight of salt water for one of the longest stretches of my adult life, I was looking forward excitedly to seeing the Atlantic.  I had already planned a little trip to New Bedford, where I would visit the nation’s largest whaling museum and step into the chapel where, in Melville’s novel, Father Mapple preaches a soaring (and prophetic?) sermon on the topic of Jonah and the whale.  In other words, I was in about as perfect a state of mind for reading Moby-Dick as a man can be, short of sharing a bed with a tattooed Maori harpooner or working for a one-legged man who nails gold doubloons to the water cooler and “baptizes” all his memos in pagan blood.  And it was a pretty glorious reading experience, I have to admit.

This isn’t the post where I defend Melville’s novel as one of the greatest epics ever written by an American…I may be forced to do that, at some point, but it’s not what has me thinking tonight.  Instead, what I realized as I read is that my experience with the book has been profoundly altered by the fact that, from 2005 to 2008, I taught the novel every school year to my honors-level American Literature class (given that it was paired with the Advanced Placement course in U.S. History, most of the students would have said they read it in “APUSH”).  Or rather, most of my students would tell you they didn’t read it….well, they tried to, but it was hard for them, or they had a lot of other work, or this “Spark” guy seemed to have gotten the story down pretty well.  This is also not the blog post where I call curses down from heaven on my lazy students for not reading the novel I assigned them.  I did enough of that while grading the Moby-Dick essays, lo, those many years ago.

I hope I’m successfully conveying the mixed feelings I have about having taught a novel I loved and high schoolers are almost genetically predetermined to dislike (or at least find too daunting to really engage with).  A little while after the last time I taught the novel, I read an interview with an American author (a good one, but one whose name escapes me) who says that everyone should read Moby-Dick, but no one should read it before the age of 50.  There’s a side of me that agrees.

Back to me on the train.  What really amazed me as I read was how vividly my reactions were dominated by my having taught the novel—so powerful were these feelings that I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to read the novel the way I once did.  It’s making me wonder if it will be the same with all the books I loved and taught—The Iliad, or The Great Gatsby, or Macbeth, all of which I have on my shelf, and all of which I have been thinking of picking up for a good re-read.  And I thought I should share some of my thoughts and experiences here in this very occasional “The Way I Read” series, since I’m curious how typical or atypical this is for teachers, and I wonder if students are affected the same way by having first read a book in the context of a class.

Reading Moby-Dick is affected first of all by the emotional highs and lows I went through teaching it.  I hit the Quarter-Deck, Ahab’s first big show-stopper, where he stamps around the deck asking if everyone knows “what they’ve shipped for” and calling out phrases like “A dead whale or a stove boat!”  It’s a hugely theatrical scene, and while reading it I couldn’t shake the memory of my first APUSH class, whose discussions of the novel had been so lifeless that I made them enact the chapter aloud as Reader’s Theatre to try and wake them up, shouting at the class to chime in on the chorus’s lines and pleading with the kids reading harpooners’ roles to make them sound more exotic and fierce.  And then my eyes light on the stage directions that frame the chapter and those following (what a weird, bold, crazy man Melville was!), and I remember a student, Briana, who became fixated with “solving” Melville’s use of the stage directions (why do they appear, what do they signify, are they the key to unlocking the novel’s symbolic meaning), and how awesome it was to have a student that obsessed with a novel they were reading as an assignment.  I remember the worst symbolic interpretations I read, and I find (to my great delight) that the best symbolic interpretive essays I read are actually now part of how I read the novel.  I hit a passage and think how much more resonant an image is if I read the novel the way Tselil did, or John, or Alex.  Those essays (written feverishly the night before, in many cases) are now superimposed on the novel for me, layers of text upon the text that make their own meanings Melville never intended.

This is wonderful.  It also robs me of the ability to read the novel alone, which is very curious—I simply can’t boot all of those voices and faces out of my head, and so I’m reading along with them.  And there are less clearly positive things that come with this too—is it good that, as I read, I keep mentally marking “oh, that would make a good quiz question” or “hmmm, how could I get them to talk about that?”  It’s certainly distracting, but it’s also a pretty high level of engagement with the text.  It means I skip over some things I probably shouldn’t, though.  And some things, I’ll admit, are pretty clearly negative: some of the worst days I had in the classroom were the discussions of chapters (almost) no one had read, or worse, the days where it became obvious we were discussing how to interpret what SparkNotes was telling us, instead of what Melville was saying.  And when I hit those stretches in the novel, it’s hard not to feel myself dragged down a bit, wondering if the book is really as good as I want it to be, remembering what a slog it was in November to be pushing through a novel that was increasingly being read only by me and about six other people.

I’m sharing all of this pretty openly, not to put any former students through a guilt trip (though some of you probably deserve it!), but rather because this is the funny, unexpected consequence of having taught something for that long.  I can’t imagine how it is for some of my colleagues who have taught the same novel for 10 or 20 or 30 years.  So, this is how I read (some things).  I wonder if I’m affected by my having been a teacher in the new books I read (am I silently evaluating them for discussion questions? wondering how I might teach a given theme?).  I wonder what it was really like for me to read Melville the first time—can I recapture those thoughts now, or are they gone forever?  And I admit, I wonder how my former students will read Melville….well, I wonder how the very few of them who will ever pick him up again will read him.  Will they remember what I did?  What parts will be worse for them, or better?  And, as the years go by and the memories fade for all of us, will works like this become less dominated by the classroom?  When I am 60, or 70, or 80 (knock on wood) and reading Moby-Dick on the train to Boston, how many APUSH thoughts will crowd my brain?  Is my shared group experience with this novel a permanent alteration to me as a reader, or just a passing moment in my life that will be gone before too long?  I hope this sparks some thoughts for you, and that perhaps you’ll share your own experiences or ideas about this in the comments section below.  Thanks!

“Until he was almost ten, the name stuck to him.”

“Stuck to him”—I like that.  Not stuck “with” him.  There’s a little hope glinting off of this, the first sentence of the 1925 winner, Edna Ferber’s So Big.  The name in question is, in fact, the title–the young man had been nicknamed “So Big” and later “Sobig” by his mother…poor fellow.  That little detail strikes me as a bit precious, but the opening of this novel still makes me sure that I’m headed somewhere better than I’ve been.

Why?  It’s the little things.  The book, after introducing “So Big” (whose “real” name is Dirk DeJong), turns to the childhood of his mother, and in describing the authors she grew up reading (a generally interesting and wide-ranging list—at least, I’d say Lord Byron and Charles Dickens are two different worlds), Ferber provides the following  description of a favorite book: “that good fairy of the scullery, the Fireside Companion, in whose pages factory girls and dukes were brought together as inevitably as steak and onions.”  It’s not a sentence that makes the heart weep for joy, but there’s something delightfully cozy about the image, and the pairing of storybook romance with “steak and onions” was unexpected and fun.

Dirk’s mother, Selina Peake, is an interesting little girl, and Ferber’s taking some time to set things up with her.  I’m looking forward to this book because it seems to be set in a real urban environment that’s not New York—a first for me, in this run of Pulitzers.  Chicago at the turn of the century is a fascinating place, and it seems like Ferber will take on the story with a nice tone and a wry sense of humor.  For example, in describing Selina’s education in an all-girl’s school in Chicago, she makes the following statement:

Of men, other than her father, she knew as little as a nun—less.  For these cloistered creatures must, if only in the conning of their Bible, learn much of the moods and passions than sway the male.  The Songs of Solomon alone are a glorious sex education.  But the Bible was not included in Selina’s haphazard reading, and the Gideonite was not then a force in the hotel world.

For me, that little paragraph showed a bit of the author’s personality.  I don’t think she’s going to stay out of the way in this book (unlike, say, Edith Wharton), but I think it will be an interesting style of narration, rather than irritating.  I’m cautiously optimistic…I guess we’ll see how it goes.  More on So Big in a day or two!