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).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.