In our first year together, my wife and I started reading out loud to one another. It began as a joke. She had picked up a Jilly Cooper novel somewhere – England’s equivalent of Danielle Steele – but she couldn’t make it through the first chapter, deciding it was too trashy. One night, as we cleaned the kitchen, I began reading it out loud. At first I declaimed and emoted and goofed around and then . . . we got into the story. We read the entire book. And then another one.
I think we read three Coopers before we decided to elevate our tastes and try Jane Austen. I was skeptical. I had “read” Pride and Prejudice in college and hadn’t liked it. This time, however, I loved it. It may have been because I was no longer nineteen, but it also was because reading it out loud meant reading it slowly. In college, it had been an assignment, and we had done the book in less than two weeks. I whipped through it, concentrating only on plot – they don’t like each other and then they do. I was going too fast to appreciate the irony, the wit, the style, in short, what makes Austen Austen.
We read all of Jane Austen, and then moved on to Harry Potter, a series that was just coming out. Each year, as Rowling published a new volume, we would read it out loud. A chapter a night. We weren’t among those who finished a book as soon as possible. That seemed crazy to us. No, we savored it. And, sometimes to prepare for the release of a new volume, we would read the last one again.
My son has now reached the age where we think he can handle the series (which grows progressively darker), and we’ve begun reading it out loud once again. The family gathers after dinner and listens to my wife. (She is fantastic with accents and reads wonderfully. If I even make a gesture of reaching for the book, the children understandably complain.) For my son, it’s a revelation. Harry’s a wizard? Awesome! For us, it’s also a revelation as we realize how tightly Rowling has constructed this world. Hagrid brought the baby to the Dursleys on a motorcycle he borrowed from Sirius Black, a character who won’t show up for two volumes? Awesome!
Part of the pleasure stems from the story itself. Rowling’s very popularity sometimes means she doesn’t get as much credit as she should for her skill as a writer. Part of it is seeing my son’s engagement and knowing he has the whole series in front of him. And much of it is from a sense of communion. Books are usually solo experiences. We read them by ourselves. Even when we read the same ones, we have different experiences. But, a book read out loud, that’s a shared experience. It’s a story, and more than a story; words spoken out loud are a spell, binding us together.