If you needed any proof that I am an old soul, as unfit for modern life as your great-grandmother, here is what I’ve been doing lately every night after the dishes have been put away and the sun has gone down.
And not just any kind of reading. I’ve been reading aloud—that special kind of reading that makes you feel very theatrical and on stage.
The book in question is a murder mystery, written in the same style as those classic Agatha Christie novels. It’s one that I’ve read before, but can’t quite remember who the murderer is. My husband, whom I am reading to, has never read this particular book, and so we are both in suspense. We see threats in every paragraph, imagine hidden figures holding pistols at every surprising turn. At the moment, he is convinced that the innocently appearing, but secretly spying Miss Rushton committed the murder. I’m not so sure.
I’m discovering that if one is to read aloud, one should pick up a murder mystery. The genre is perfect for it. We turn out the lights, and we read by the light of a candle. The flame casts all sorts of menacing shadows on the wall, and I read with an uncomfortable chill in my spine. I feel whisked back to a time much more ancient. After all, for most of the time that reading has been possible, it has been read aloud.
I feel a connection in these moments with the readers who have come before me. I think of them squinting by the fire, dogs barking around them and the wind trying to break the warmth. Beowulf was thundered out loud in the old mead halls, Chaucer was told by the fires of castles. Saint Augustine even commented on how remarkable it was when his companion, Saint Ambrose, read silently. “His eyes traveled across the pages and his heart searched out the meaning, but his voice and tongue stayed still.”
Ambrose had one thing going for him: it’s a lot harder to read with your voice and tongue. As I read, the pages take longer, and by the end of the chapter I feel the words in my throat.
Still, shaping the words forces me to slow down, and I find myself dwelling over the words in ways I rarely do. I take care to describe the landscape in a paragraph I would often skim over, and I must try and capture something of Miss Rushton’s voice when she confides her secret identity. Do I add a tilt in her voice at the end of her sentence? Or deepen my voice, make the urgency more profound? Say she isn’t guilty—am I making her sound too villainous, distracting away from the real murderer? It’s a tremendous responsibility. As the narrator, the way the listeners will think of and interpret the characters is determined by me.
My reading now is so fast. A mathematical reading. It starts in the morning with my alarm. Seven a.m., I spend ten minutes reading the morning news. A world of hurt and joy, shootings and medical breakthroughs are compressed into headlines and bit paragraphs. I mull over them on my drive into work, where I spend all day immersed in text. I can take 1000 pages of words and shake them into a book. The words are framed into technical terms: leading, kerning, ascenders, descenders, weight, stroke. These frames provide a grid onto which I can place thousands and thousands of words, all mathematically proportioned and tuned to the movement of your—the reader’s—eyes. After a year of such work, text has now become a visual art to me. I scan the pages I’ve set with a discerning eye, looking for errors and gleaning sentences by chance along the way.
I can’t read a page without seeing it, understanding the decisions the text designer made, and comparing it to decisions I’ve made myself.
I’ve heard that many editors have trouble writing their own books, finding it hard to turn off the critic in their head. Could the same thing true with type designers, finding less and less joy in reading?
So at night, I read aloud. I make myself think about each word, form each detail with sound.
In the latest chapter, Miss Rushton has just discovered a menacing pair of tracks in the moonlit snow. Someone is following her. I hold a pillow to my chest, leaning over it as I read further. Now how do I get this right? Read it quickly, as quickly as Miss Rushton’s heart must surely be beating? Or read it slowly, as slowly as the dread of the discovery takes hold? Shadows from the candle run murkily along the walls.