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.
- 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’.
- 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’
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.