Reading Out Loud

One of the several hundred books I've read to my kids over the last eight years. I include it as an illustration because I have fond memories of this trilogy; great characters and good plotting.

One of the several hundred books I’ve read to my kids over the last eight years. I include it as an illustration because I have fond memories of this trilogy; great characters and good plotting.

About eight years ago, I started reading out loud to my two boys. My wife started the job, using board books, picture books from the library. At some point we stopped being selective, we’d just grab a fifty pound stack off the shelf every week and read them all. I didn’t do all that many of those, for some reason, I was doing freelance stuff a lot and opted out. I’m not sure why.

I came into my own when we started reading chapter books, middle grade stuff, and young adult. I read on school nights only. Its part of the on-going negotiations required to make them go the fuck to bed. And if it sounds as if our parenting style packs the punch of UN security council resolution, well, you’re right, and shut up about that.

Because my boys are teenagers now, 14 and 16 and I’m still reading to them. Which is amazing and wonderful.

At some point, a few years back, I realized that this was the best time of the day for me. The reading. I’d turn out the lights and use a head mounted flash light; or I’d buy the books for the iPad or Kindle Paperwhite. My words would fill the darkness. And I’d be transported to another time and place.

Like anything else, if you do something for hundreds and hundreds of hours over a span of years, you get better at it. It becomes comfortable, and then second nature.

Hint: writing should be like this, too.

You do simple voices for the characters; then you add accents; it helps a listener, who has temporarily zoned out remember who is speaking. Keep the protagonists voice very close to your own, though, or you’ll be very very sorry.  You may end up with a generic male / female voice, an old person voice and a little kid voice; maybe that’s all you need.

When you read something out loud, you’re forced to notice it. You see and shape each word, engaging multiple brain regions and sensory motor cortex machinery. Reading aloud is more than reading to yourself.  It’s also of course, much slower. That’s the trade off.

If you’re me, as you read some part of you is reading ahead, and seeing dialog tags, so you know which voice to use (and you every now and then get it wrong; I always say, ‘whups, wrong voice’ and reread the passage in the right voice when that happens.)

You sense prose mistakes viscerally. like hitting a pothole while driving. A conversation that is interrupted by some huge block of description or interior monolog, which you return to — only now you don’t remember what people are talking about? Yup. You spot those.  Some prose tinkering engine in your brain will automatically rewrite sentences lightly as you read, snipping out names that could be pronouns, swapping in names when you feel the pronoun has become ambiguous, etc etc. You can’t stop yourself.

When the kids were younger, I’d hit a word I thought they didn’t know, I’d ask them what it meant; if they didn’t know it, I’d tell them what it meant; then I’d read the sentence again. Do this a few thousand times over a few years and I’m guessing you’re helping your kids with reading comprehension.

The text becomes a shared experience you can talk about. Not something that you’d think would be all that special, but if your family has devolved into a group of people watching their own personal screens, if sitting together on a couch and watching a movie or TV show all together has become increasingly rare as your kids get older, then the shared book is very cool indeed.

Mostly it’s a chance to be there, with them, when they read stuff that will get inside them and change them.

When Sirius black dies in the forth Harry Potter, my kids both burst into tears. They’d never known death, not even a pet, at that point, and those people were so real, my kids hope that Harry could have a family was so strong, that that experience was mind blowing. It was sad and I felt for them, you felt bad, for making them cry, and I felt jealous, for the immediacy, for the experience they were having, so raw and real.

You can vicariously re-enter the texts of your youth, the books that made you, and you drag your kids along with you.

I know that it won’t go on for much longer. But it has been a great thing. I recommend it for all humans, but for writers particularly.

Read out loud. It’s awesome. I’m guessing it makes you a better writer, too.

Posted in Making a Writing Life, Self Indulgent Mémoire

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