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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, February 11, 2018 1:00 am

Reading aloud: road to a deeper relationship

Ron Charles

My wife likes to drive. I like to read aloud. So, she takes me places, and I take her places. It's a match made in heaven – or at least a Honda.

We discovered this early on, while we were still at college, deep in the cornfields of Illinois. She owned a little yellow Civic that couldn't go in reverse. I was a reluctant driver and a useless mechanic, but I could read the best parts of the New Yorker magazine aloud on an hour-long trip to St. Louis.

It's the journey, not the destination. And it's an even better journey if you can spend it hearing what Pauline Kael thinks of “E.T.”

When we were first married, every night my wife and I sat up in bed while I read a three-volume biography of a 19th-century theologian. This may not sound like the most promising start to a marriage, but we've been together more than 30 years, so you can keep your judgments to yourself, thank you very much.

I've been recalling those early days because Feb. 1 was World Read Aloud Day. That's an annual event founded by LitWorld to celebrate literacy as a human right. 

But please don't imagine that reading aloud is only for children. Indeed, one of the ways we can encourage young people to keep reading is to keep reading to each other. Yes, my favorite parenting memories involve sharing “Winnie the Pooh” with my daughters, but I have equally sweet recollections of reading aloud to my wife in the years leading up to the kids' arrival – and in the years since they left home.

I'm willing to concede that my enthusiasm may not always have been entirely welcome. Once when I was preparing to teach a course on literary theory, I woke up my wife in the middle of the night and read her a particularly powerful chapter of Mary Daly's “Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism.” The irony of that moment is not lost on me now. Looking back, I know that if feminism means anything, it means the right to say, “Not tonight, dear. Let's read it tomorrow.”

But that, I hope, was a rare misstep, and most of our reading together has transpired in the car, which provides the perfect combination of confinement, quietude and idleness. (Some people tell me they can't read in a moving vehicle. I don't know what I would do under such an affliction. Jump out, I suppose.)

Over the decades, my wife and I have together enjoyed dozens of books over thousands of miles. Certain trips – even the highways themselves – feel indelibly stamped with particular novels. We'll always associate Northern California with the adventures of Theodore Decker in “The Goldfinch,” a book long enough for even the most ambitious road trip.

Last year, while driving to New York, my wife listened to me readJ. Courtney Sullivan's beautiful novel “Saints for All Occasions.” Again and again, we'd pull off the road for a bathroom break but then sit stock-still in the McDonald's parking lot to finish a chapter.

Admittedly, there have been a few books I haven't read as well as my wife deserves. “Less,” by Andrew Sean Greer, sent me into such fits of laughter that she had to keep asking, “What? What are you saying?”

And on a trip to New Hampshire, there were times when I couldn't see clearly enough through my watering eyes to read Jim Shepard's Holocaust novel, “The Book of Aron.” My voice would break, and we'd just ride along for miles in silence.

But that was a special kind of communion, too.

Many more of us used to know what a pleasure reading aloud could be. Last year, Abigail Williams, an Oxford University professor, published a fascinating work of history called “The Social Life of Books.” Williams describes the thrilling transformation in 18th-century England when literacy rates rose, publishing blossomed and people gathered to hear books and articles read to them.

It's hard to imagine a return to such an idyllic pastime in an era when we can't log off social media long enough to speak to each other. But let this year's World Read Aloud Day inspire you to give it a try. Next time you're in the car together, turn off the radio, put away the iPhone and tell your driver, “I'm going to read you this book.”

It could be the start of something wonderful.

Ron Charles is book critic of the Washington Post.