The vast voice that rings down from above, enshawling our arms in a cone of auricular safety. The physicality of sound intended to contain and expand simultaneously.
Is there anything better?
My father had a special voice when he read to us. Softer, lighter, a questioning of things. He must have read us hundreds of books, but the ones I remember are by Thornton W. Burgess, a New England author and conservationist who wrote about forest animals with names like ‘Reddy’ Fox and ‘Buster’ Bear. Dad’s voice, usually definitive, became light, tickling the words in wonder and merriment, nurturing our delight in nature. His “reading voice.”
American novelist Marilynne Robinson encapsulates the importance of reading:1
The frontiers of the unsayable, and the avenues of approach to those frontiers, have been opened for me by every book I have ever read that was in any degree ambitions, earnest, or imaginative; by every good teacher I have had; by music and painting; by conversation that was in any way interesting, even conversation overheard as it passed between strangers.
Language has tremendous power, doesn’t it? Especially when woven into a narrative and carried to us through voice.
Indian/Canadian poet Rupi Kaur delivers poetry sanded to a remarkable grain. Her words are elegant: nothing is present that isn’t necessary, and nothing necessary is omitted. From Kaur’s “The Perfect Date”:2
nothing is safer
than the sound of you
reading out loud to me
It is safety, isn’t it? Comfort.
Dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp once wrote that when preparing a dance, she preferred her studio to be warm. “There’s also a psychological component to hear: It calls up the warmth of the hearth and home.”3
Safety. Comfort. Something we all crave, and something we remember distinctly about our childhood (whether it was true or not). And there is the warmth too—parents hold their children on their laps, in their arms.
That feeling of being read to is like the feeling of being led into a world and shown all its intimacies and close-kept secrets. Described perfectly by Rachel Carson, a natural teacher and caretaker, in her book The Sense of Wonder:
It is hard to find adults to read to us when we are adults ourselves. But there are exceptions.
Audiobooks, of course. I spent most of my time in graduate school listening to the marvellous Flo Gibson—her voice is like syrup passing through marbles—reading the collected works of Charles Dickens. (British literature has always held some sort of nostalgic escapism for me.) Gibson put dance in the word “Twist” and when she said “Mr. Bumble the Beadle” – as Dickens made her do quite often because he knew how funny it sounded – it was like the name was tumbling downstairs only to arrive fully standing at the bottom.
But my favorite authorial voice is British actor Martin Jarvis reading P.G. Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle series. It is wondrous from word one. An English countryside, a different era, the kind of escapism one gets from gardening or petting a purring cat.
I bought a few Wodehouse hardbacks recently at Hatchards Bookshop (they have an entire wall devoted to him), and I was delighted to find a staff member who not only loved Wodehouse but also loved the Jarvis recordings. (The only thing better than reading Wodehouse is finding another person who also reads Wodehouse and then talking about how you both read Wodehouse. I intend to talk about Wodehouse should I ever casually encounter Stephen Fry.)
David Sedaris once noted his favorite “reading” was Elaine Stritch reading Dorothy Parker. Many people have read Dorothy Parker—her words bounce into our ears. Stritch is singularly good at it. Her voice is not dissimilar to that of Flo Gibson.
A woman who has done more to coax poetry in our everyday speech and wit than anyone alive is Maria Popova, writer and creator of Brainpickings.org. Popova hosts the annual Universe in Verse, a celebratory amplification of science through poetry and the spoken word. To those who participate, thank you for reading to us.
Poetry is best when well-read aloud (although it is also enjoyed in quiet) when humans can add a pause, breath, intonation. Human voice turns heavy mist into high cumulus.
As adults, the joy of being read to expands beyond feeling safe to feeling enlightened, elated, interested. In wonder.
It is not easy to be in wonder these days. Not only do we not have time, but it requires denuding our fragile egos. It is a state of not knowing. Of being affected. Deferring. The older we become, the more threatening this position feels. And with good reason—we’re taught to be in charge, responsible, accountable. We abandon our instinct to listen, learn, and defer. To care.
But we still need to feel comforted. Every human will long for a feeling of comfort at one time or another. Being read to is feeling comforted.
A few years ago, I was caught in a nighttime windstorm in the Virginia woods, the tail end of an off-coast hurricane. Branches, even trees, were falling. It was the closest I’ve been to death. And I walked twelve miles down the mountain to civilization, all the while listening to the great Edward Herrmann reading David McCullough’s book about the building of the Panama Canal.
Falling trees, suffocating darkness, water that wanted into my blood. And Edward Herrmann. I remember nothing about the Panama Canal, but I will never forget that voice. It gave me the illusion of comfort until I found actual comfort.
I cannot express it well, so instead, I’ll pull in Durga Chew-Bose’s simple lines from Too Much and Not the Mood. Her energy and power are infectious.
When I hear a recording of Frank O’Hara recite ‘Having a Coke with You,’ gleefully anticipating him saying yoghurt, saying flu-o-rescent orange tulips.
to him and I would rather listen to him than all the poets in the world
except possibly for Dorothy Parker occasionally
and anyway she’d hate that.
I wonder if Chew-Bose has heard Elaine Stritch read Dorothy Parker.
I hope so.
The feelings of comfort hold us fast like rotund arms. But comfort doesn’t live our life, it doesn’t extend us into the world. For that, we need wonder. Wonder propels us out into the world and back into forests. We need both comfort and wonder.
My husband reads to my daughter. Inflexion, vocal patterns, tempo, pronunciation. My husband has a “reading voice.” My daughter is so very lucky.
Feel comforted. Be in wonder. Be read to.