Reading Aloud: A Letter of Recommendation

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We’re revisiting some of our favorite posts of 2020 this holiday week! Grab a cup of cocoa and look back on some fun bookish goodness with us as we head toward the new year.

With weather turning colder here in the Northern hemisphere, and the pandemic raging, I’m here to recommend reading aloud as an activity to connect with yourself and others during these trying times. We’ve written before about the value of reading aloud to children, but I’m talking about reading aloud to people of any age, or reading aloud just to yourself. Time spent reading aloud has been among the brightest of my year, and I’m here to share what I’ve learned.

I know I’m not alone in finding it difficult to concentrate on reading this year. I feel guilt about the books whose words I’ve stared at, roughly in the order written, never quite breaking through the fog between the book and my brain. There have been a number of books I’ve read this year that I could tell were good but that I did not connect to emotionally as I might have in different times. It can be heartbreaking.

Reading aloud helps clear the fog for me. Personally, it’s not the same as listening to an audiobook. It’s easy to zone out while listening and find that minutes have flown by, multiple rows knitted or gems attached to my little diamond art or vegetables chopped. Processing the words from sight into speech requires much more from me, and the result is that I actually read the book!

You might think this takes too long. I too listen to my audiobooks starting at 1.5x speed and inch higher depending on the individual narrator’s natural pace. But I would rather truly read and appreciate one book than vaguely absorb two or three.

Finding Read Aloud Friends

If you live with other people, you’ve got folks who might like to be read to. If you like taking turns, being read to is also very nice. Knowing the reader makes their interpretation of the text extra interesting. It’s especially great if while listening you can busy your eyes and hands with a puzzle or a craft project to help maintain focus.

I’ve found over the course of the pandemic that unstructured virtual hangs with friends can become awkward. Many people’s lives have shrunk to small domestic spheres, coupled with the weird way time has smeared our days together. Finding things to talk about can be tough. Bringing some structure to a meetup can be a great way to continue forging new memories and deepening connections. I do a weekly pub trivia–style game with one group of friends, I’ve taken part in virtual book clubs or watch-alongs, but I think doing a group read aloud would be a very meaningful activity with loved ones who are far away.

I am also an advocate for reading aloud alone. It might not be the right choice for every book, but it’s certainly one strategy if you’re looking to switch up your habits. Honestly, anything to help a book land in the rigged carnival game that the pandemic has made of our brains and attentions. I’ve been doing it for many years, sometimes to slow myself down while tackling dense prose. Reading aloud is also a great way to savor funny writing. Ultimately, there’s no wrong way to read aloud.

What to Read

While I can easily forgive myself or a friend who suggests we watch something together that turns out to be bad, the stakes are higher with a read-aloud. I’m a big advocate of quitting books that aren’t working, but I think the shared effort to find a book you want to read with other people is worth it. There are lots of ways to go about it.

I would recommend a book that everyone in your group has been meaning to read but has never gotten to. Have you read everything on our required reading list? Our Must-Read lists are a great place to look as well if you’ve got a genre in mind. And I’ll always advocate for picking a mystery you can discuss as you read, making wild predictions and baseless accusations throughout. (Let it be said, trolling your reading buddies can absolutely be a part of the fun.)

If you need to really ease in, if reading’s been extra tough for you lately, pick a chapter book for young readers. These also work perfectly as palate cleansers between longer books. Toys Go Out, a charming book about toys that come to life when humans aren’t around, was an absolute balm to my soul this spring.

Another great choice is a book that has recent or forthcoming adaptations. I did a read-aloud with my spouse of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, because I wanted to read the book (one I’d been meaning to get to forever!) before watching both the Hitchcock and the Netflix adaptations. Although the movies fell very flat for me, reading together made shouting at the bad movie extra fun. 

Getting Creative

If you’re thinking of reading aloud solo, I’m here to support that journey. It can feel a little silly, but I love to read aloud alone. Start with just the dialogue. If you’ve ever tried your hand at acting, you know it’s fun to read lines. Finding the right voice to give different characters, adopting the appropriate tone for the work, all of it helps make reading a rich experience.

The next level might be reading plays aloud. I haven’t gotten there yet. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because I miss going to the theatre so badly. We’ve all seen these various pandemic reunions of the casts of beloved movies and TV shows. Why not get together with a group of friends and do a reading of a play? You could find new appreciation for those plague references Shakespeare was dropping all along.

And what about reading your own work? Reading a book together already creates a kind of intimacy in the shared experience. If you’re brave and willing to be vulnerable, read a poem you wrote. If you’re even braver, give your fandom friends a taste of your fan fiction. Write a thrilling olde timey serialized novel you can read dramatically. The possibilities are endless.

Reading Aloud is the Best

At a book club, you get an hour or two to discuss a book after you’ve read it. With a read-aloud, you can pause any time to comment on something that stood out in the text. It’s an ongoing, interactive book club that can create memories and foster inside jokes. You can also gain appreciation for a book by getting someone else’s perspective in real time. We often think of reading as a solitary activity. Obviously there’s a time to revel in solitude, but if you’re looking for connection these days, reading aloud might help you find it.