A Fiddler's Voice
Home music and reading aloud are two joys I discovered late in life. While my love affair with my fiddle is a troubled partnership, I refuse to bow to popular demand and quit. And at giving readings, I'm far from expert. But in both cases, process, not product, is the important thing. In both cases the sense of direct, intensely personal communication is the same. If the string quartet is the most intimate form of music, reading aloud must be the most intimate form of magic.
As with all true magic, no one really knows precisely why it works. The eye, according to W. H. Auden, is a restless organ, always looking for new stimulation. The ear prefers the familiar and rejoices in what it has heard before. This may be why very young children ask to hear the same story over and over again, and heaven help you if you change a single word.
Whatever the reason, the voice remains the most moving of all instruments. Other arts may strive for music's immediate emotional impact, but music strives for the subtlety and expressiveness of the human voice.
Fortunately each of us has a voice and needn't fear to use it. For a long time what kept me from reading aloud was not only shyness but certainty that I could never hope to match professionals heard on recordings. Also I once made the mistake of listening to myself on our tape recorder. The effect: horrifying. Worse yet, my wife claimed it sounded exactly like me. I considered taking a vow of perpetual silence. Some of us may be immune to or fascinated by the sound of our own voices; for most, I warn against taping.
Professionals, undeniably, are splendid. Amateurs have more fun. Besides,
we have two unbeatable advantages over them: We're live. We're there.
Method acting or elocution courses aren't required either. Betty Higden in Our Mutual Friend praised the genius of the orphan Sloppy: "A beautiful reader of a newspaper," she says. "He do the police in different voices." For us, this isn't necessary. If we're especially good at doing the police in different voices, fine. Otherwise: simplicity and straightforwardness. Underplay rather than overplay.
We all have the storytelling gift to one degree or another, but the gift needs practice and cultivation. Every one of us can read aloud from the printed page and do it better than we might imagine.
The main secret I found is to let the text do the work. In the best prose, as in the best poetry, the language itself carries us. The cadences, the rhythms, are built in. One hint I gained from an excellent storyteller: let pictures form in your mind while you read. Through some mysterious chemistry this transmits a sense of vitality, clarity, and conviction to the listener.
These past couple of years I've had exciting times reading stories - my own and others - to grade school and university classes, neighborhood kids and adult friends. I've also attended, a rapt listener, family reading sessions. I've seen for myself something remarkable happening, something being created. By the evidence of my own ears and eyes, I'm convinced it's one of the most loving and nurturing of family activities. There are no age limits. We think mainly in terms of reading to the young, but the elderly enjoy it equally.
Each family must agree on its own best time and place, keeping as much as possible to a schedule but giving the pattern a chance to form of itself. One family I know spends at least an hour each evening, and the kids complain it's too short. But they've been reading aloud for years. Beginners would probably find sessions most comfortable between twenty and thirty minutes. Good cooks leave us wanting just a little more. So do good readers.
Daily habit soon becomes glorious addiction. Friends of mine spent a whole summer reading The Lord of the Rings; then, without skipping a beat, went on to the complete Kristin Lavransdatter; and are now contemplating Les Miserables. Beginners, however, might like starting with tales finished at one sitting.
In this, the only problem is an embarrassment of riches. The choice is dazzling and I envy anyone discovering such a treasure trove for the first time. Jane Yolen's tales, for example. Kipling's Just So Stories. And Natalie Babbitt's The Devil's Storybook. And the Grimm fairy tales. And the poems or anthologies of Myra Cohn Livingston, David McCord, Nancy Larrick - I don't dare start listing any more favorites, which would take forever.
The final choice should be something adults enjoy as thoroughly as children. Reading down to listeners is as discourteous as talking down to them. Well meaning adults may try to tolerate reading something they personally dislike just to amuse the kids. It's a mistaken indulgence. Boredom quickly sets in on both sides. And boredom, in literature as in everything else, can be terminal.
The important thing is: Start. Now. Born in deep winter, I've been shivering ever since. I find the winter landscape a profoundly moving sight: moving me, that is, to lock myself in the house. Now is the time to set up bulwarks against the rest of the season.
We may be glad, summer or winter, for all the bulwarks we can find. With much of our entertainment pre-packaged, passive, and public - television at its best and worst is a public medium even when we watch it alone - we risk numbing our sensitivity and our children's to the private and personal.
This is by no means the same as isolation. Reading or being read to are private and personal adventures - inner adventures, but of a kind that leads outward: to connection, not separation.
Finally, if we're especially blessed, the process may come full circle.
A good friend, for example, has been reading for something like five years
to his granddaughter, now 12. A little while ago, at their usual session,
he was surprised when she told him: "No, I don't want you to read
Then she added: "It's time for me to read to you."
Lloyd Alexander is a writer, editor and winner of numerous awards, including two National Book Awards and a Newbery Medal. He was recently honored by Parents' Choice with our first Lifetime Achievement Award. Read our tribute to this celebrated author and his work here.
Suggested Book Links
For a complete list of Jane Yolen's books, visit her official website:
By Natalie Babbitt
Farrar Straus & Giroux, ISBN 0374417083
Paperback Price: $5.95
Rudyard Kipling. Edited by Peter Levi
Penguin USA, ISBN 0140183515
Paperback Price: $5.95