When we first started dating, Lyle and I used to read aloud to each other. Dating seems like a funny word for it. We met in a trailer park in the redwoods at UC Santa Cruz, without cell phones or wifi (this was 2004), and spent a lot of time hiking, hanging out in the community hammock (I know), looking for mushrooms, and talking for hours over tea or wine. And sometimes studying. It was pretty magical.
I think we must have started with poems– probably Robinson Jeffers, whose paperback Selected Poems we were each secretly astounded to find dog-eared on the other’s shelf.
Twelve years later, we’ve just celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary, and reading aloud remains one of my favorite ways to reconnect with him and to those early days, when life was a lot simpler.
Here are five of our favorite read-aloud books from over the years.
The Monkeywrench Gang, Edward Abbey
He had a red Tacoma truck with a lumber rack, and I still remember how my heart pounded when he picked me up for a daytrip– just us, to a beach near Pescadero, for a sandy, cold picnic that turned into sunset-watching. It’s the same truck we took a few years later up to Portland, to check out a city we both thought we’d be happy in… That was a lot of miles to cover, so I brought along a paperback of Abbey’s classic novel about a group of saboteurs in the southwest, taking apart machines that threaten environmentally vulnerable places. However you feel about that, the book is incredible as a read-aloud, with plenty of dialogue and action and intrigue. I think I read this until my voice was hoarse and I couldn’t see. Later in life we discovered audiobooks.
Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer
We read this aloud to each other in a tent in the rain, while camping along the Canal d’Ile-et-Rance in early January 2008. I was teaching English in St Malo, France, and we were on a serious budget. We took a train to Rennes for the new year, then bought second-hand bikes and a tent and rode back to St Malo along the canal, camping along the way. Sounds great, except it’s FREEZING in northwestern France in January. (We were 24 and naive. I mean, resilient.) We parked our bikes in dark orchards after midnight, huddled in our thin sleeping bags, and ate cold bread and cheese and drank cheap cognac to feign warmth. Reading Krakauer’s account of Chris McCandless’s ill-fated decision to leave civilization for the wilds of Alaska, we were distracted from the cold in our own bodies, and transported by Krakauer’s seemingly effortless prose.
All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
We read this while I was pregnant with our daughter, taking turns reading each chapter. I was exhausted, uncomfortable, and had to pee about every ten minutes, so the short, memorable chapters were just right. This book lends itself to reading aloud because it is a novel in two voices. Set in St Malo, France during the German occupation, it tells the intertwined stories of a blind French girl and German boy through luminous language. It was interesting to imagine the story happening in a city we’d lived in and explored for the better part of a year. Doerr won the Pulitzer for this book, and it’s a must-read whether aloud or silently.
Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer
Something about early parenting pitched us into a string of mountaineering books and movies. Maybe there are similarities: intensity, extreme discomfort, and marathon exertion on thin reserves of sleep and food. Whatever it is, Krakauer’s book got us hooked– so much so that on our first date night post-birth, we went to see Meru. Then we started watching the First Ascent series, and every Everest documentary we could find online. Most recently it was Sherpa, the story of the Everest industry from the perspective of the indigenous Nepalese, who do the bulk of the mountaineering work, face the greatest danger, and receive the least benefit. Into Thin Air tells Krakauer’s side of the 1996 Everest disaster– which he experienced first-hand– and was written in grief and shock in less than a year. We knew we wanted a read-aloud book, and we knew we loved Krakauer, but we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. The book is gripping, informative, terrifying, controversial, and so well-written.
The Curve of Time, M. Wylie Blanchet
This is our most recent read, and I’m laughing as I realize we’ve been reading it since early June! It could be a quick read, with its short, fascinating chapters, but we are tired parents and sometimes we just want to watch Colbert and go to sleep. (ha!) It’s the story of a family’s many summers spent exploring the coast of British Columbia by boat in the 1920s and 30s. And by family, I mean a widow and her five children. And by boat, I mean a 25-foot cruiser. On days when I feel uncertain about heading out in the rain with my toddler, I think about this incredibly brave woman who taught her children to read maps, pick huckleberries, and hike to freshwater streams to wash their salt-stiff clothes. But the most refreshing part of this book is its style and voice. Blanchet focuses on action scenes, keenly observant depictions of wild places long-since settled, and detached philosophical musings on the nature of time. It’s a nice change from the more introspective, highly personal memoir we’re so used to now.
General Thoughts and Less-Successful Picks
I notice a few themes: we like books about outdoor adventure, and fast-paced novels with risk and a strong narrative voice. But I’ve learned to be wary of narratives that hit too close to home, and I try to steer clear of lush literary styles that lend themselves more to silent reading.
Doerr’s book deviates from the outdoor theme a bit, but I think it worked because of the alternating short chapters told in different voices. Picking up on this thread, we joined our county library’s Everybody Reads program last winter and tried out The Book of Unknown Americans, which also has alternating chapters. In hindsight, it’s a better book for solo reading, and because it centers around a mother’s guilt over an accident that injured her daughter, it also created a lot of extra anxiety for me as a new mom often visited by worst-case-scenario visions. Not the best choice for pre-bedtime reading, for me.
We also attempted and abandoned Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, a gorgeous book that would have been a perfect read-aloud when we were younger. We tried to read it when our baby was a newborn, and we were both way too exhausted to focus on the prose. I think it’s one I’d like to read alone, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be a great read-aloud for you.
What are your favorite read-aloud books for grown-ups?