Thursday, June 23, 2011

A Forgotten Art

I know something about you. It's actually something we've had in common for most of our lives, believe it or not.

It's that the first story you ever knew isn't one that you read in a story book. It was one that you were told, and very likely, one that you were read. Maybe it was your mother, maybe your father, maybe your grandparent, but someone held you on their lap long before you knew what words meant, maybe before you realized you had hands, and told you a story.

If you were very lucky, as I was, someone kept on reading you stories after you learned what the words meant. I remember lying in bed as a child with my mother reading the book du jour in her light reading voice, of course doing all the voices, with nothing to do with my eyes except stare off through the ceiling and absorb the words as completely as a young child can.

Then something sad happened to me, and probably to you too: one of those stories was the last that someone read to you. It never really happens intentionally. One night, you declare yourself too old to have someone read stories to you, you're perfectly able to read them yourself. Maybe you even stamped your small foot, and you had no idea what a great and terrible thing you'd just done.

Books and stories are amazing. There's nothing like sitting quietly with a good book on a lazy afternoon, only getting up to turn on a lamp because the daylight's gone too dim to see.

But there's something equally wonderful about reading and hearing stories read aloud. As a reader, it makes you experience text in a completely physical way. You can feel a character's building excitement, feel yourself run out of breath as their lines tumble more and more quickly from your lips, feel the aching slowness of the words during sad passages. It makes you live the text. For the listener, you get the rare chance to experience a story through someone else, to hear the characters the way the reader hears them, hear the emotion that they feel as they read. It's a surprisingly deep connection.

Many years ago, in college, my the girl I was seeing went to Germany for a year. We knew we wouldn't be able to talk to each other daily in the stone age before Skype, so I was trying to figure out something I could do for her. I hit upon an idea. We both liked the Harry Potter books. I told her to make sure to bring a cassette player (how quaint).

I bought myself a tape recorder and boxes of blank tapes. Then I settled in on my dorm room bed, opened the first Harry Potter book, pressed record, and started reading. I read and read, chapter after chapter, tape after tape. When I finished the first box of blank tapes, I packaged it up with some other things, and sent it off to Germany with a note explaining that she should listen to a chapter a night, no more.

I don't even remember how many books or how many countless tapes I went through doing this before life intervened and I stopped, but it was a lot, and I remember my voice being pretty horse many times. But I'll be damned if it didn't work. As I read, I felt closer to her, even though there were several thousand miles and multiple time zones between us. Of course, I'll never really know how it was listening to those tapes, but I knew that in some way, we were still talking every single evening.

The great tragedy of growing up is giving up those small things in the name of being a big kid before you really know what they are, and then forgetting about them once you're old enough to know. I think reading and being read to is one of those things that people should do more of. I know, looking back, I certainly regret not having done it more.

To try and remedy that, I'm trying out recording myself reading. I'm not great at it (frankly, I think I sound like I have a cold), but I enjoy it, so what do I care? I started with a short story by Neil Gaiman called "Troll Bridge". I'll probably do a bunch of short stories at first while I'm working on doing a full recording of World War Z. Of course, anything worth doing is worth sharing, so if you'd like a copy of what I've done, email me, comment, smoke signals, whatever. I'm not putting them up for public download since they're all copyrighted and stuff, but I should be able to get away with email or something more sneaky.

But really, just read or be read to. Stories are meant to be told.

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