Monday, 12 November 2012

Books and Reading

I've just finished the new biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor by Artemis Cooper. One of the things that
struck me as I read it was how much reading aloud went on in Leigh Fermor's life. His mother, it appears 'loved reading aloud' so perhaps that's where he first got the habit or maybe he picked it up at the tutoring place he was sent to where 'there was a lot of reading aloud.' Or possibly it was at the school he attended in Canterbury, where his stories and 'contributions to the Walpole Society were read aloud, usually to small groups of boys gathered in the housemaster's study.'

Wherever he was first introduced to it, reading aloud seems to have provided Leigh Fermor with a lifelong source of entertainment. As a young man he lived in Romania, and in the house where he was staying, 'Le Grand Meaulnes and L'Aiglon were read aloud in the evenings.' Louis MacNeice and his wife later 'spent many evenings with Paddy, reading aloud', while Leigh Fermor and Diana Cooper spent 'days of lolling, interminable chat and crosswords, reading aloud and ... fireside meals.' Leigh Fermor and his wife even practised the habit while waiting for their house to be built, 'hunkered down in their tent, drinking Grant's Standfast whisky and soda and reading aloud from Mrs Gaskell.'

All these references to reading aloud made me wonder if it was more than merely an eccentric passion, restricted almost entirely to Leigh Fermor. Was it actually something lots of people did to divert themselves before the arrival of television? If so - if, in fact, reading aloud was a widespread pastime, I'd be interested to know if it influenced readers' preferences about the types of stories they liked. There are plenty of people who think that the earlier method of publishing novels - serialised, in bits, in monthly magazines - influenced how novels were written, but could it be that in former times certain novels came to prominence because they were particularly suited to reading aloud? If so, did that change the novel and also does that mean the novels we read now, in a world where reading aloud is little practised, are different in some way to those that were prized for their suitability to being declaimed?

Or am I leading a sheltered life? Are there households all around me where people are still reading books aloud to other adults, (and I don't think audiobooks are the same thing at all, by the way)? We're all encouraged to read to our children but maybe we'd all be happier if we all also read to each other? But then again, it might all become a tiny bit relentless. It's easy to switch the television off without anyone's feelings being hurt but telling a reader that actually you've had enough now and you'd quite appreciate silence might be a source of friction. And, if you couldn't say, 'Shut up,' would your life become one long wedding guest in the Ancient Mariner scenario? Or would you just pick up a book yourself and start reading aloud in opposition? And if there were several people in the family? And if you didn't like the same sorts of books? Blimey, the whole thing's a nightmare. I wish I'd never brought it up.


  1. Oh yes it was I believe a common activity in Regency times (at least) ... Jane Austen's family would read aloud, engage in family theatricals etc. Sounds wonderful really (unless you had, as they did in Pride and prejudice, a Mr Collins reading Fordyce's sermons to you perhaps!).

    I think it does still go on ... my son and girlfriend were reading a book aloud to each other, and I have heard of others doing it, but they're clearly in the minority. My feeling about being read to is that my mind wanders more easily than if I'm reading myself ... but maybe that's just me ...

    1. Warn your daughter not to marry - my husband read me an entire Barbara Pym novel before we were married, but since the wedding not a declamatory peep from him. Pity - he read very nicely.

  2. I haven't seen much of this outside the classroom. I can remember two or three occasions on which I've read aloud to other adults, and that would have been poetry.

    Reading prose aloud requires a good deal of time, doesn't it? I believe that a normal speaking pace is about 120 words per minute, and that reading is about twice that. You would need to add in time for pauses and discussions, too. You would require something of a consensus on what is to be read, or the reader would have to be able to impose his wishes.

    The novelist Louis Auchinchloss served in the US Navy on landing craft during WW II. He and other officer on his ship read through all of Shakespeare's plays, on terms set out by the latter: all plays to be read, all speeches to be taken in strict rotation, whether by the two of them or by such persons as took part. It sounds as good a way as any to pass off hours on a ship.

    1. Your comment made me start to imagine a book club where everyone took it in turns to read a book to each other - I'd much prefer that to the usual kind. Somehow in the usual kind I always find myself disappointed by other people's dismissal of books I love and love of books I loathe.

  3. Your piece made me ask myself when I took part in reading aloud, adult to adult. Certainly many times when my wife was learning her lines for a play, but that doesn't count. [Still, it was fun. I got to perform doing all the other parts in the only way I'd ever have been game to.]

    There were just two times otherwise. When my daughter [then 22] was in recovery for a week in Sydney after having a non-malignant brain tumour removed, I read The Red Tent to her nightly or at other times, and she always remembers this with great affection for the book [and her Dad, goes without saying!]

    I think it was an all women ward and though I read softly in order not to disturb others, there were requests from other patients to speak up so they could hear it too. So there are some times....

    The second time was when I had just started chemo after having that other sort of tumour removed from my brain, and my wife decided to read aloud to me from some light fluffery, which was also delightful.

    This wasn't in a ward, which was just as well, because there were some salacious bits. I can't say they rivalled that 50 Shades book because I've never read it, but it would have seemed odd from outside our room, especially she being an actor an' all.

    It seems to me it's a lost art once rearing kids is over, but one worth bringing back. I'd rather it be in other circumstances than my two, though.

    1. My husband was very sad when our children decided they didn't need to be read to any more - he wasn't quite ready (his youngest daughter comments now, 'Dad reads brilliantly though'. Hurray for dads). The Red Tent story brought tears to my eyes.