How Reading Can Improve Your Love Life

This is an essay by Andrew Blackman.

When you’re thinking of ways to spice up a relationship, reading doesn’t spring to mind.  It’s a solitary, cerebral activity, after all.  But I discovered recently that it doesn’t have to be that way.

My wife and I are both keen readers, so we’ve had plenty of quiet evenings, each engrossed in our books, in the same room but in different worlds.  Recently, though, we’ve tried something new: reading aloud.  The result: a much more intimate reading experience, but with some downsides too, which I’ll get to later.

It started with War and Peace.  Genie was planning to buy the audio book, but I offered to read it to her instead.  It’s one of my favourites, and a reread was long overdue.  I started well, but soon began to flag in the face of the sheer bulk of pages awaiting me.  It became clear that my voice would give out long before Bolkonsky had his epiphany on the battlefield of Austerlitz, so we reached a compromise: I’d read one chapter, and Genie would read the next.  We alternated our way through Tolstoy’s epic, had a lot of fun, and a habit was born.

The Benefits

  1. An individual activity has become a shared one.  We spend more time truly being together.  But, more than that, our reading experience is enriched.  As one person reads, the other naturally interrupts to make an observation, and our reading becomes more like a conversation.  We always talked about books before, but there was a lag of weeks or months or even years between our readings of the same book, so it was often fresh for one of us and faded for the other.  Now, the conversation happens in ‘real time’.
  2. We only read half a book each.  For half of the time, we get to relax and listen while the other person makes the effort.  It seems a better use of time than each of us reading the whole book individually.  We seem to have stumbled on what the productivity gurus would call a ‘reading hack’
  3. It’s fun to play at being actors, in the safety of our own living room.  If a passage is getting boring, we ham it up, or do dodgy Russian accents, or put on special voices for each character.  I’ll never think of Natasha Rostova the same way again after Genie’s rendition!

The Downsides

  1. Listening is a more passive activity than reading.  While this can be good – we all need to relax sometimes – I do sometimes find myself drifting off when Genie is reading, thinking about something else and just letting the words wash over me.  I pay more attention to the chapters I’m reading myself.
  2. You can’t go at your own pace.  You know how it is: sometimes you want to reread a passage, or make a note on it, or just stop for a while and let something sink in.  It’s harder to do that when you’re reading aloud to someone else, or when that someone is reading to you.  Sometimes I ask Genie to repeat something, or pause for a while in my own reading to her, but I’m conscious that if I did it too often it would be annoying.
  3. There are times when one of us wants to read and the other one doesn’t.  When reading separately, that’s not a problem.  But when reading becomes a joint project, if one person opts out, there’s no reading that day.
  4. And finally, we often read just before going to sleep, so the battle against sleep can be a problem.  There’s nothing worse than reading aloud for half an hour, putting your heart into it and doing as many funny voices as you can, only to be interrupted by snoring.

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Andrew Blackman is the author of the novel On the Holloway Road (Legend Press, 2009), which won the Luke Bitmead Writer’s Bursary and was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize. His next novel, A Virtual Love, deals with identity in the age of social networking, and is out in spring 2013. He was born in London, worked as a staff writer for the Wall Street Journal in New York, and is currently living in Barbados while he works out his next move.

Photo:  Some rights reserved by lizmonsterx.

25 Replies to “How Reading Can Improve Your Love Life”

  1. What fun it was to read that there’s another couple like us who enjoy reading aloud. Our current selection is Les Miserables (the really, really long version!). We also love theater and, accordingly, divide up the male and female roles for script reads over martinis at our dining room table. Since we have both performed on stage, we’re amazingly adept at doing a full spectrum of accents. On the evenings that we have a window open, I’m sure our neighbors must think that at least 17 people are visiting us…

    1. Hi Christina,

      Les Miserables is a great choice! Somehow the longer books seem to work better, perhaps because we really enter into it and the book becomes part of our lives for a long time. Also taking it on together makes it less daunting – I read Les Miserables alone and loved it, but I think having someone else read half of it would have helped 🙂

      Reading over martinis – that’s even better! And it must be wonderful to be good at doing all the different voices and accents. We’re pretty awful at accents, but that makes it more fun in a way too!

  2. What an interesting idea, it might be worth a try. Of course, if I were to read aloud in English (a language my husband doesn’t entirely dominate) right before bed he would definitely fall asleep…..

    1. Hi Chris! Yes, that might be difficult 🙂 You’d have to find a real page-turner, something to keep him awake. War and Peace is probably not the best choice! What language does your husband speak?

      1. Jesus speaks Spanish and Catalan. He actually speaks English pretty well, but doesn’t have the comprehension skills to match his spoken level, which is unusual, because most language learners are the other way around, they understand more than they can express.

  3. I used to do a lot of reading out loud with my husband, when we were first married and our son was too small for books. But then, once he grew up enough to enjoy them, I put in countless hours reading to him. I’d read for an hour – sometimes more, every night. Those were the best mothering hours I spent. I loved it so much and my son did too. In fact, when he’d grown out of it, I considered taking myself down the old people’s home and raading to them because I missed it so. I haven’t done that yet, life being rather hectic still, but I’m sure I will get there one of these days. Sharing stories is such a fundamental pleasure.

    1. Ah yes, those must have been wonderful hours for both of you. There’s something so intimate about reading a story to someone, isn’t there?

      That’s a great idea to read at the old people’s home – I’m sure they would love it and appreciate it so much. In similar volunteering vein, when I was a student I used to read books onto tape for blind people. I really enjoyed it, although I never met the people who received the tapes so it was a bit more removed than what you’re talking about. But definitely worth doing.

      Do you think you might read to Mr Litlove again one day, now that your son has grown out of it? Rekindle those early-marriage memories? 🙂

      1. Discussion groups are a good idea! I used to visit sometimes when I was younger, but it was all quite unstructured. Reading aloud and then discussing the book would be wonderful. I’m travelling at the moment, but when I’m next settled in the same place for a while, I’m going to look into doing this.

        1. Back in the days when I ran a touring acting company (Hey, with a last name like Hamlett, it only fit to be doing something theatrical), a group of my actors thought it would be fun to read plays out loud, have wine and cheese, and talk about the scenes we had just read. It was also an incredible introduction to works that we weren’t as familiar with. The discussion component really fits with the premise of reading aloud with your spouse and familiarizing yourself with a wide range of writing styles.

          1. That sounds like a wonderful way to spend an evening, Christina. It’s a shame you don’t run that acting company any more – I’d have tried to gatecrash 🙂

    1. Hi Emma
      Yes, it definitely wouldn’t work with a non-reading spouse – although I wonder if said spouse could be converted. Reading aloud could start off as just a way of spending time together, and end up as the catalyst for a newfound love of books. Just an idea!

  4. Reading aloud doesn’t get enough press.

    When I lived abroad I found that reading aloud could be good for one’s social life. A small group of us met together to read on occasion. Since books in English were scarce, a book to share with friends was a treasure. And the post-reading discussions give it sort of a book group feel.

    It can also be good for family life. I knew a family that read aloud every week for family night. Even when the kids were teens, everyone made a point of being home for dinner together once a week. After the meal, one family member read a chapter. They read their way through all sorts of good books. When my kids are old enough to sit still, we plan to do the same. (Right now one of them hardly makes it through a whole board book.)

    So much community building from books.

    1. I love how these comments have broadened out the topic! I was speaking more about couples reading novels because that’s what I’m familiar with, but Christina introduced theatre, Chris raised the issue of different languages, Litlove and Emma talked about reading to children, and now, Anita, you make an excellent point about reading with friends. It’s not something I’ve ever done, but I’d certainly imagine that it could be excellent for your social life, particularly in a non-English-speaking country. Where were you living?

      The family situation you describe also sounds so much more healthy than a lot of families where the TV dominates, or where everyone’s engrossed in their individual devices. It sounds a bit old-fashioned, like the way families used to spend their time before all the other more flashy entertainment options sprang up. I’d guess that in some families it might be hard to drag the kids away from their X-boxes and say, “Let’s all read a good book together.” But probably once you get it instituted as a family habit, it would be something everyone enjoyed. Hope you do go ahead and do it, when the kids are old enough to sit still!

      1. Great discussion! I have thoroughly enjoyed reading it and agree with Andrew that the way this discussion has broadened is just beautiful!

  5. What fun to see this! My husband and I just recently started reading to each other–we’ve both become hooked on a detective series set in Venice, and we were reading the books in a different order. Or I’d finish and then have to bite my tongue not to say, “have you gotten to the part where…” yet. Now we read to each other, as Andrew & Genie do, alternating chapters. These books, mind you, are about 300 pages — nowhere near War & Peace (or Les Miserables). I do agree with many of the points here. I love the idea of reading as a family. We don’t have kids, and the cat doesn’t cooperate, so we’ll have to find like-minded friends. There’s something so wonderful and comforting about being read to, especially by a voice you like to hear. Thanks for the post.

    1. A detective series sounds perfect for reading aloud, Lindsey. That’s the sort of thing where it’s really difficult to talk about if you’re reading different books at different times – with some books “spoilers” are not so important, but with detective fiction they can really ruin the book! I smiled when I pictured you having to bite your tongue not to say “have you gotten to the part where…” – that’s a familiar scenario for me too 🙂 I agree, it’s very comforting to be read to by a familiar voice. And cats don’t cooperate in anything, do they? Why do we love them so much?!

  6. Loved your post, Andrew! I don’t remember reading loud to another person or being read loud to, though I remember my mother reading novels and telling the stories after she had finished reading them, when I was a child. I would like to try reading out loud sometime.

    1. That’s a nice memory, Vishy! I like the idea of telling the stories after she had finished reading them. That’s the good thing about reading aloud to someone – the story doesn’t end when you close the book 🙂

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