Read My Lips

It took some creativity for Chris Stringer to persuade his wife to listen to him read one of his favorite books.

"He suggested reading 'Dracula,' " Jennifer remembers. "When it came to horror books, I was like, 'Oh, yuck.' " The couple lives in St. Louis, and Mr. Stringer is an avid fiction reader devoted to classic horror. But when they were newly married, Ms. Stringer tended to shun fiction of all kinds: "Most of the books I knew were from the movies."

However, they were "so broke and feeling deprived," Jennifer recalls. So when her husband turned off the lights, filled their living room with flickering candles, and began reading the Bram Stoker classic out loud, she quickly caught the spirit. "He made it a lot of fun," she says.

In this high-tech age of VCRs and DVDs, reading aloud to one another may not be a common practice. But those who have embraced the venerable art of audibly sharing the written word tend to praise the habit highly. They say it's an activity that simultaneously relaxes and stimulates. Practiced at its best, they insist, it lifts them outside the details of daily life and permits the exploration of an imaginative realm in tandem.

Reading aloud may intensify the impact of beautiful images or suspense, or provoke discussion.

"I would recommend [reading aloud] for every couple," says Wendy Gesler, a software engineer who lives in the suburbs outside Boston. She began the practice of reading aloud with her husband, Tim, when they were first married and her father suggested they share a book on creating successful relationships. "To dream together, to think together, it's so bonding. I almost think it should be mandatory."

And yet, for all the shared enthusiasm many reading-aloud afficianados profess for the experience, a large number of them also confess that their taste in books is anything but similar - at least at the outset. It's not often you'll find a couple equally enamored with science fiction reading Ray Bradbury together, for example.

Many of those who read aloud together find it's often less a question of delving into shared enthusiasms and more a matter of being willing to learn to bend to someone else's tastes and interests, and to share the gentle art of compromise.

"I'm more interested in poetic language, and he's looking for a good story," says Freyja Hartzell of her boyfriend, Grant Johnston. Mr. Johnston is a painter and Ms. Hartzell is a potter, and the Des Moines, Iowa, couple find reading aloud can be an ideal way to combine a shared experience with solitary work. "If I'm throwing pots he'll read to me, and if he's painting I'll read to him," Hartzell says. "It's social time for us."

Finding a book that works for both is not always easy. Tom Wolfe's "Hooking Up," for instance, was "too linear, too nonfictional for me," Hartzell says, while Dom DeLillo's "The Body Artist" was "too nonlinear, too bizarre" for Johnston.

But Steve Martin's "Shop Girl" struck the oft-elusive balance. "It had a melancholy humor that appealed to both of us," Hartzell says. "And the story moved right along."

Many times those who read together - even silently - find they manage to expand one another's horizons. Cheryl Hurley, president of the New York-based Library of America, and her husband, Kevin, an economist, have found a way to share her love of French literature. Because she reads French and he does not, they do not read aloud together. Instead, she plows through Proust - or Balzac or Stendhal - in the original, while he reads an English translation simultaneously.

The result has been that although Cheryl, who holds a master's degree in French literature, was originally the enthusiast, today they both describe themselves as devotees of the French classics. "He now enjoys it as much as I do," she says. But the original impulse came from her desire to have him enter with her into a world she knew and loved. "There's just something about Proust that makes you want to share," she says.

When children are included in the mix, a further dimension is added. In the Carper household, John, a librarian at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., is the one who reads fiction aloud to wife Lisa and their two children. But when it comes to what they read, Lisa chooses.

For her, it's mostly a case of sharing early loves with her husband and children. "I remember books from childhood and recommend them, and that's how we choose," she says. "John read a lot of history and biography as a child, but he's delighted to be discovering a new form of literature now," she says of the more imaginative books she tends to select.

But there have been some missteps, she's quick to acknowledge. "I recommend something eagerly and they all hate it, and after two days they dump it and look at me accusingly."

Brice Kenny, a retired Coast Guard officer who is now home-schooling his three sons, says he loves to read aloud to his boys outside of their formal schooling time, and generally the choices as to what to read are made by consensus. But it was Mr. Kenny's idea to try Jules Verne's "Michael Strogoff" - after a highly successful experience with the author's "Journey to the Center of the Earth" - and the younger Kennys were quickly turned off by long paragraphs of description and background. "I found it to be pretty interesting," Kenny says. "But we got a few pages into it and they said, 'Come on, Dad, let's move on.' "

Generally, a successful shared reading experience starts with "something that compels you to turn the page," Kenny says.

The fact that some books are so absorbing is exactly what causes Stephen and Luci Vincent to share them. Detective writer Tony Hillerman has become a favorite choice for the couple, who live in Massachusetts but like to travel by car through the Southwest- with one partner reading to the other.

"We don't generally read mystery stories on our own," Mr. Vincent says. "But we find that these make particularly fun books to share, since we get so engrossed in them that we'd be incommunicado if we weren't sharing the book."

In the case of the Stringers, since their children have arrived, the couple now read less often to each other and spend more time taking turns reading to their 6-year-old son. They're now finishing the Wizard of Oz books with him.

But Chris hasn't given up on his original aim of increasing Jennifer's interest in fiction. "She's amazed I'll commit so much time to something that's not factual," he says. According to Jennifer, his persistence is working. Her interest in invented stories has grown over the years. "I can see now that who we are essentially and spiritually often comes out more clearly in fiction than [in] nonfiction," she says.

When it's her turn to read to him, she is still most apt to choose a magazine article or something fact-based. But Chris continues to dream: "What I'd really love is to have Jennifer as passionate about reading fiction as I am," he says.

"I have this picture of us reading someday when the kids are grown up and out of the house, sitting side by side, sharing the things we like."

It might never happen. "But in the meantime, we're learning from each other."


(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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