Book at Bedtime
A few years ago, a friend of mine told me about a sort of book challenge in which she was taking part. It was simple enough: the idea was to read an average of a book a week for the entire year, so that you could make your way through 52 enjoyable tomes by the time January rolled around again. As a voracious reader, literature student and attender of book clubs, she managed it with ease and does, I think, still dip in and out of this pattern. But I – then in the midst of writing up my PhD – didn’t even try. The reasons I could provide were manifold, and mostly to do with how terribly busy I was. But underneath them all sat something that had been lodged in my brain for over a decade, and was (as it turned out) a vastly outmoded and untrue piece of information: that I was a very slow reader.
If I had bothered to think about this for more than about ten seconds, I would have realised then and there that I was being ridiculous. The length of my PhD bibliography attested to that, as did the bibliographies of all the other things I’d been working on whilst I was studying. And yet I seemed to be carrying around a kind of hangover from school, where a close friend had been an insanely quick reader (so fast, in fact, that she skipped big bits of the books and forgot them almost as soon as she’d put them down), and thus my rather ponderous polarity-based brain had decided that if she was Fast, then I was Slow. The tortoise of the library shelves. Or something. As a teenager I also went through a period of being completely unimpressed and on principle uninterested in Good Literature. Which accounts for my usually rather well-concealed knowledge of spin-off novels around Star Wars and The X-Files.
Anyway, last year I finally got over all of this and have been reading lots of books ever since. In fact, I’ve just closed the back cover of book number 25 this year (and this is the end of week 18, by the way, in 2017, so I’m ‘ahead of target’ – that is, if I were aiming for such a thing). But I’ve also started listening to the occasional Book at Bedtime on Radio 4, and sometimes to radio plays as well. And the last few days – partially because of the books I’ve been reading lately, in which some of this sort of thing occurs – I’ve been thinking about reading out loud.
It is not unusual, if reading books about life between, say, 1750 and 1950, to encounter characters reading to each other. Sometimes they exchange poems, and on other occasions, they get through entire novels. Yet the only circumstances in which I can now think of such a thing occurring, the party that is being read to is in some way… well, unable to leave. They are being read to at school. Or they are in hospital. Or they are elderly, at home, perhaps bed-ridden, ‘in need of company’. (I’m working as much here from TV depictions of such things as personal experience and general knowledge.) It is somehow a morally uplifting thing to do, to read to someone. Someone in need, usually: of company, or of education, or perhaps both.
This strikes me as rather sad. Of course, the crucial problem with reading things out loud is that it takes a long time. Much longer than it would to just read it yourself. But I rather like the idea of sitting with a group of friends of an evening and reading stories to each other. Or indeed taking parts in a play we don’t know, and reading it through together. Last weekend, I spent a wonderful few days with some hugely creative people and we played story games: scenarios given, words drawn from a hat, a timer to write something, and then the requirement to read our work out to each other afterwards. We were all embarrassed, cringing at the idea of publicly declaiming our words. But it was actually extremely liberating, and fun, and very enjoyable: we took such different approaches to the same things, and I realised that they saw beautiful things in situations I wouldn’t even have thought of. To write, of course, is a creative act; to read aloud, well, is also creative. And it is exposed, too. It requires trust, and quiet, and attentiveness. It is also amazing how much it can aid understanding, to make words sound. I’m currently reading a lot of A.E. Housman and Walt Whitman in preparation for some talks at the Ludlow English Song Weekend later this month, and am reading all of the poetry out loud to myself in my flat. Speaking a text makes the words catch and hold better, stops them skittering away or falling past you without your fully grasping what the writer is getting at. For reasons serious or comic, you can read it again if you don’t understand it. It’s like thinking of any kind – it has a solidity when it’s out loud that is harder to ignore, and sometimes easier to comprehend.
Would you read a book to someone? Or sit whilst others read to you? I think I would. The right book, with the right people, could be a magical thing. What a pleasant thing it would be to leave Being Busy behind for a night, and get lost, with friends, in words.