Reading Out Loud Gives Us Pause

OF THESE EIGHT BOOKS, Sheila Kay Adams’s My Old True Love (upper left) was the most fun to read aloud.


It all started when we both wanted to read the same book but didn’t want to wait our turn. So to keep the peace, I read it out loud. What we learned was that we enjoyed doing that.

Through the years I’ve always read portions of books aloud to Timberley, particularly back when we were working on our young-adult novel Night Lights and the other unpublished manuscripts in that series. Back then it was a regular practice for me to rise early, write several pages or maybe a chapter, and then read it to Timberley later in the morning for her feedback. That’s how we co-wrote all those Kindred Spirits Adventure books.

Before the first Hunger Games movie came out in 2012, we started reading all the novels in Suzanne Collins’s series about Katniss Everdeen and her dystopian world. After the first book, we were hooked and couldn’t wait to read the next one. Around the same time, we also read Kaui Hart Hemmings’s The Descendants out loud before seeing its film version starring George Clooney. That book, in particular, is much better than the movie, though Timberley would rather look at George than listen to me.

JAN KARON’S MITFORD NOVEL Light from Heaven (center) is an entertaining ‘Easter’ story about resurrection and renewal.

As an English teacher, I always read books aloud to my classes, especially Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because I liked replicating the different characters’ dialects. In my book, that’s one mark of a good novelist—a writer who creates dialogue that is believable and can be easily read aloud in distinctive voices. Mark Twain wasn’t the first American writer to explore regional dialects; however, he gets the credit—from Ernest Hemingway, no less—for writing the first truly American novel.

Timberley likes Jan Karon’s Mitford and Father Tim novels. I had avoided reading them, because Ms. Karon was, like me, a Lenoir native and lived in the N.C. High Country—specifically, Blowing Rock, the model for the small town in her bestselling, 14-book series. I didn’t want to be accused of copying Ms. Karon’s style. Maybe I shouldn’t care, if it gets my own books published.

All my novels—again, all unpublished except for Night Lights—have recognizable settings whether place names are changed or not. Night Lights is set in the North Carolina mountains and foothills. And then there’s my Valdese/Zion novel, my South Brunswick Islands novels, my Bald Head Island and Seven Devils epistolary novel, my Blue Ridge Parkway/Skyline Drive novel, my New Mexico to Knoxville road novel, and, of course, my Morganton novel—all places I’ve lived or spent time.

I’m mentioning Jan Karon because we read two of her Mitford books aloud recently, and, unlike Mark Twain’s facility with dialogue, Ms. Karon’s handling of it—as well as her insistence on using pronouns without proper antecedents—annoyed me greatly. I often couldn’t figure out who was speaking until a couple of sentences into a section. Her wholesome, down-home cast of characters and Christian stories are endearing, but reading her lazy prose almost made me lose my religion. She needs a good editor.

Another popular novelist with North Carolina connections—Nicholas Sparks, whose romances are turned into blockbuster chick flicks—was even harder for me to read aloud. I had to resort to reading in odd, Monty-Pythonesque accents—“Oh, Pansy! The problem!”—to keep from gagging at the horrible, unbelievable dialogue in Every Breath, which, by the way, is set at Sunset Beach and Bird Island in the South Brunswick Islands. Also, Sparks needs to avoid using contractions like he’d and she’d so much.

Even the books of my late friend and Duke professor Reynolds Price are sometimes hard to read aloud because commas are as scarce as hen’s teeth in his prose. Also, in his novels, the dialogue is often more oddly idiomatic than I’ve ever heard real Southerners speak.

Now, I’m certainly not suggesting that I’m a better writer in any respect than Ms. Karon, Mr. Sparks or Mr. Price, because obviously I’m not. And I’m not fishing for attaboys or personal recognition on any level, whether as an aspiring novelist or cranky literary critic or name-dropping, television-eschewing bookworm or anything else.

But I am saying that reading a book out loud can quickly reveal its strengths and weaknesses, and that reading a novel or nonfiction work aloud to share it with someone else can be the simplest and best interactive entertainment of all, whether one’s audience is a spouse, child, friend or student. When I’m not grousing about bad dialogue or comma usage or odd expressions, we’re pausing to discuss ideas that the material expounds or elicits.

Maybe that’s where our culture is losing its way. We get so caught up in, especially, watching video content on TV and on the Internet that we forget we can always press the pause button, take a deep breath—breathing in and back out again to clear our heads—and then gather and share our thoughts before turning control of our minds back over to the creators of all the media we consume.

Maybe that interaction—that sharing—is what we’re missing. Maybe we need to pause now and then to talk to one another instead of at each other. Maybe what we share and what we consume need to give us pause, literally.


Breathe in.

Breathe out.

And repeat.