No Skimming Aloud

Reading to others all but guarantees focus.


Sometimes, I flinch at the question, “What are you reading?” and draw a blank as though pop quizzed on independent study. Reading so much, I can fall prey to “in one eye and out the other.” I skim, distracted. Like listening while thinking of something else. Or, dangerously, driving a familiar route on autopilot.

What wakes me, shakes me, makes me pay full attention? Trying to read in Spanish! One blink of wool-gathering and I’m lost. Reading Spanish, I can’t coast.

But what helps with English? Reading aloud.

I chanced on this rediscovery with my centenarian friend. We’ve shared many books together over the six decades since her daughter and I met. She read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory aloud to us on summer nights when we were 12. We were fully capable of reading to ourselves (and did, often all day and all night). But it was special to listen to her calm voice spin the tale in the long summer dusk.

She no longer has the vision nor the sustained attention for such stretches of reading, but she listens acutely in short bursts. So now it’s my turn to read aloud. Her bedroom has floor-to-ceiling bookshelves; she’s bedfast in a library. We’ve experimented with what works best.

I spied Stalking the Blue-Eyed Scallop on her shelf. Euell Gibbons’ books about foraging for wild edibles are a read-aloud staple in my family. Our taste in fun may be odd, but we laugh helplessly over the numerous water changes necessary to boil weeds into submission and supposed edibility. I read my friend the chapter on clamming. Reminisced about the day she taught me to feel with my toes for the sharp edge of a quahog shell in damp sand. She smiled and drifted into a doze.

Another time, I chose Munro Leaf’s Ferdinand. The book’s pages had been turned so often they were velvet. The drama of the pacifist bull beneath his cork tree sparked some questions — her voice is soft, but not her curiosity.

My mother told me to read aloud to my children, during their first days, whatever I was reading: Whether Anna Karenina or the phone book, the sound of my voice would matter. So, my firstborn heard Robb Forman Dew’s Dale Loves Sophie to Death. The memory of reading aloud on warm, weary mornings is part of why I love the book. Now I suspect she would have preferred John McPhee or Herman Melville, but she didn’t complain.

In time, her younger siblings received the same treatment (different novels). All grew to be readers — and listeners. My son wore out the cassette recordings of The Lord of the Rings. Our car-trip soundtrack was The Odyssey. Today, all have a penchant for serial podcasts.

I’ve not attempted a chapter book with my elderly friend — I’m not there often enough or long enough. Her daughter keeps Treasure Island bedside, hamming it up with heavy accents both enjoy.

What works best for us is poetry. Scanning the bedroom shelves, I spotted Alive Together: New and Selected Poems by Lisel Mueller. My friend’s daughter gave me a copy in 1996 when the book was published. I shared it with my aunt, a great reader and lover of poetry. The very last time she read aloud, at her church, she chose Mueller’s “Animals Are Entering Our Lives.” Not long after, at her memorial service, my youngest read the poem.  

So now, my friend and I are reading our way through Alive Together. Line by line, stanza by stanza, read and repeat. I attend to the words on the page and the expression in my listener’s eyes. This mindful process is revelatory. I had forgotten the obvious: Poetry should be read aloud. Whether blank verse or rhymed, poems are songs, with rhythm and refrain. The slower and closer we read, the deeper we go.

On a recent visit, the windows were open and 17-year locusts droned background music. I turned Mueller’s pages and found “Cicadas.” I began to read:

“Always in unison, they are/the rapt voice of silence.”

Read and repeated, line by line. Paused to consider, with my friend. Read and repeated.

Brood-X cicadas droned on. My friend’s blue eyes — bluer than her pillow, bluer than the porch ceiling beyond the window — stayed bright. There we were, the two of us, in the moment, for the moment. Alive together.

Ask me what I’m reading. I know.

Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s collection of love stories is Known By Heart. Her story collection Contents Under Pressure was nominated for the National Book Award, and her debut novel, The Bowl with Gold Seams, won the Indy Excellence Award for Historical Fiction. Her novel Frieda’s Song was published last month. Her column, “Girl Writing,” appears in the Independent bi-monthly. For many years, Campbell practiced psychotherapy. She lives in Washington, DC, and is at work on another novel.

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