Mothering at Mid-Career: Reading Aloud
I read aloud in my classes a lot. In children’s lit, I explain that I want my students to experience the text as the child audience often does — as an oral performance. In my Victorian literature classes, I remind my students that many Victorian novels were family read-alouds, and I read short passages frequently to force us all to slow down, to pay attention to the details of scene-setting and dialogue that, reading for plot, we may skim through.
I read aloud in my classes a lot. In children’s lit, I explain that I want my students to experience the text as the child audience often does — as an oral performance. In my Victorian literature classes, I remind my students that many Victorian novels were family read-alouds, and I read short passages frequently to force us all to slow down, to pay attention to the details of scene-setting and dialogue that, reading for plot, we may skim through. In my creative writing classes, not only do I read to my students, but I make them read to each other: students workshopping their pieces must read them out loud before their peers make any comments. I talk a lot about voice in this class, and about cadence and pacing. When we do this, my students often find that until they hear their own words they don’t always know what they’ve said.
One of the great joys of raising my children was reading out loud to them as well. Though my son, at eleven, reads fluently to himself and no longer quite has the patience to sit and be read to, we managed as a family to have read-alouds with both children well into the upper reaches of elementary school. Reading aloud, we could not only share a book, we shared conversation and closeness: a protected time. And books I’d read silently to myself started to mean different things as we shared them out loud: I invented voices for characters that now echo in my head; I caught details that I’d never before noticed when my children asked about them. In the early years, I read some picture books so often that I memorized them: Where the Wild Things Are remains more firmly in my memory than many a sonnet I memorized for a Renaissance literature course in graduate school. Later, we moved on to chapter books. The Wind in the Willows, one great favorite, nearly defeated me with its convoluted Edwardian sentences, but the cadences spoke to my kids and we read it out loud to each, more than once. The clarity of E.B. White’s sentences in Charlotte’s Web reminded us that, yes, he is the White of Strunk and White; the archaic vocabulary of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy sent us to the dictionary more than once; the cliffhanger endings of chapters in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series defeated our best read-aloud efforts as both my son and I routinely snuck the book away to see “what happened next.”
Despite my love of reading aloud, I had never — until a couple of weeks ago — read my own creative work in public. While at conferences I read papers to my peers (occasionally hearing infelicitous repetitions that, yes, I should have caught earlier), reading aloud in that case is a means to an end, simply a way to share an argument for discussion. But over the past several weeks I’ve twice had the opportunity to read from my essay from Mama, PhD to a receptive audience, and it’s reminded me again of what reading aloud can do. Both in reading my own essay and listening to those of others, I caught nuances of expression that I’d missed in reading silently. In reading my own work, I found humor in a line I’d previously thought rather serious (hint: it’s all in the timing). And I saw and heard others respond and join the conversation in ways that we can’t — or don’t — do when we encounter each other only in print. Other parents shared their stories, students asked questions, and we all learned from each other. Ironically, one thing we learned is how alone we were before we started sharing our stories — as more than one person said, it was hearing someone else describe her experiences as an academic parent, juggling the diaper bag and the bookbag, that reminded her of how solitary she’d been in that same juggling act.
We think of reading as an essentially solitary act, one mind communing with another mind across time and space. And as such, it’s a great gift — truly, an almost magical encounter. But when we make reading communal we break down our solitude and gain much-needed perspective, and a new alchemy takes place. The Mama, PhD readings of the last few weeks were a new reminder of an old pleasure. As parent, teacher, and writer, I’ve recommitted to making reading aloud central to my practice.
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