Couples turn reading into a joint venture

Reading aloud brings shared pleasure, companionship, and intellectual stimulation.

By , Columnist

Winter, however cold and snowy, has its sweet compensations. What better time to throw logs on the fire, hole up with a book, and be transported to the realms of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or drama?

For most people, reading is a solitary, silent act. But some couples also turn it into a joint venture by reading aloud. Their literary equation is: 2 people + 1 book = shared pleasure. Whatever the season, whatever the subject, it's their personal version of an audiobook.

No one pretends this is a widespread pastime. But talk to couples who do it and their enthusiasm is obvious. In addition to broadening their reading, they find it creates a bond that doesn't happen when they sit passively in front of the TV.

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Some couples read in the living room, others in bed, still others on the porch in warm weather. Some take turns reading, while others delegate one person.

Dennis Lynch of Glenshaw, Pa., reads to his wife, Linda Klena, while she knits or does needlework. They enjoy sharing both laughter (P.G. Wodehouse) and tears (Charles Dickens).

Dickens also made the reading-aloud list for Annalisa Crannell and Neil Gussman of Lancaster, Pa. "My wife is in love with Dickens," Mr. Gussman says. "I was less so. But 'A Tale of Two Cities' was so good, read aloud."

The couple alternates between fiction and nonfiction, reading a chapter a night, or 10 pages. Their list ranges widely, from Dante's "Divine Comedy" to "Goldfinger," "Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger," and "The Medusa and the Snail," which Gussman describes as "beautifully written science."

Yet not all volumes lend themselves to reading aloud, he cautions. "When you read some books aloud, you find out how trite they are. It has to be pretty engaging in its story, style, and content."

Mr. Lynch also finds some books too "leisurely" or too hard in terms of following characters through dialogue. He changes his voice a bit for different characters, but doesn't try to "perform," he says. "We did make it all the way through 'The Lord of the Rings.' That was an accomplishment."

In Fullerton, Calif., Kirk and Marianne Sullivan are reading the Bible aloud. "My job is to get us through the 'begatting,' the long lists of 'and Jacob begat Horeb, and Horeb begat whomever,' " Mr. Sullivan says. "If my wife could, she'd just skip over the begatting sections and get to the Gospel. I make sure the begats get read."

Reading the first four Harry Potter books brought enjoyment to Karen and Andrew Page of New York. "We found it equally as pleasurable to be the reader, with the feeling of nurturing it instilled, as the 'readee,' with the comfort we received from that," Mrs. Page says. She adds that when they listened to one of the later Potter books on DVD during a long drive, "it didn't make the same connection."

Poetry remains the reading-aloud choice for Betsy Storm and her husband, Jack Kavanagh, in Chicago. They especially like a set of poetry anthologies edited by Roger Housden, bearing titles such as "Ten Poems to Last a Lifetime."

"Poetry seems to be one of the best types of literature to read aloud because of its experiential, evocative impact," Ms. Storm says. "Also, poetry offers a great springboard for discussion."

Discussion is a word that comes up again and again as couples describe the joys of reading together. Echoing other enthusiasts, Carol Tiffin James of Hancock, Maine, notes that she and her husband, Ed, have "wonderful discussions" on everything they read.

In 2006 the couple sold a three-story Victorian house and built a small ranch "out in the sticks" to simplify their lives. That has given them time to sit by their wood stove in the winter as Mrs. James reads to her husband. Before that, they read in the car as they traveled to visit their adult children. He drove, she read.

The Jameses read only nonfiction. A biography of President John Adams helped to pass the time on a road trip from Maine to Tennessee last year. They're currently reading a biography of Benjamin Franklin. Their list has included books about theology, English history, and the slow-food movement, such as "The $64 Tomato." The couple also enjoyed "What the Bleep Do We Know?" She describes it as "a fascinating book about the string theory, quantum physics, written for lay people."

Describing herself as a speed reader when she reads silently, Mrs. James says, "Reading aloud has forced me to stop and pay attention so I don't miss so much. The books really come alive for us." They no longer watch TV, finding that reading aloud offers "a much more satisfying and peaceful lifestyle."

At a time when busy couples can sometimes feel like proverbial ships passing in the night, the prospect of 20 or 30 minutes together, companioning with each other and the printed page, carries strong appeal. In a wired age, reading aloud offers a comforting reminder that it's still possible to carve out time for such simple, low-tech pleasures as another log on the fire, another chapter in a book, and another literary discussion à deux.

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