By Dorothy Ross
Reading aloud is becoming a lost art, seldom indulged between consenting adults. The intimacy of sharing prose in our own voices is rarely enjoyed beyond primary school. People do watch television together, even during meals. We sit next to each other in movie theaters, and we may hold hands in the dark. But when it comes to reading, couples retreat to the solitary confines of their overstuffed chairs. He spends the evening with his mysteries, she with her history books. Or, to paraphrase Paul Simon, “… your Emily Dickinson and my Robert Frost.”
Some few of us are trying to keep the read-aloud legacy alive, to re-vitalize it. When my husband and I bought our motorhome, a friend gifted us with Steinbeck’s slim travelogue, Travels with Charley, suggesting that we take turns reading the short chapters as we toured the West. Bill and I soon discovered that while I savor the reading, he prefers to listen. So that’s how we spend our long evenings in campgrounds. We have re-read some classics—Bill’s favorite, Don Quixote, and my Scarlet Letter. We even got through all 550 pages of Moby Dick before turning to more current titles, like African Queen and An American Childhood.
My latest reading project is the recording of my memoir pieces for our kids and grandkids. They seem to find my stories more interesting when told in my own voice. Whether reading Huckleberry Finn aloud or speaking my own memories into a microphone, I feel like I’m play-acting. Choosing the voice to carry Mark Twain’s languorous Mississippi dialog, or the Bronx accents of my childhood, puts me on a stage of my own making, the star of my own way-off-Broadway production.
You’ve heard that the camera doesn’t lie? Neither does the microphone. I cringe to hear myself racing through long passages, dropping the volume at the end of sentences, and slurring sibilants like Kipling’s slithery snake. Listening to my own recordings is one of the best ways to track the changes in my voice due to Parkinson’s disease. If one section sounds flat and lifeless, I just record over it and work at injecting more energy and enthusiasm. It works for me.
When I write, I try to imagine how my words on the page will sound on a compact disk. When writing a scene that I expect to record, I strive to explain the context and fashion a frame. Since my audience will not have photos to illustrate the surroundings, I have to make the effort to paint word pictures.
When I set a scene, whether in my memoirs or in the novel I’m writing, I try to give the reader a sense of the characters’ moods and the feel of their surroundings, without excess description. It’s always a challenge to find the right balance of showing and telling. Composing a text for a recording is simpler because I can convey so much information by my spoken interpretation. If I keep my voice soft and breathy, I don’t need to tell the reader that a mother is whispering to her child. Likewise, I can inform the audience of excitement, fear, and glee by changing my delivery.
The more recordings I do of my own stories, the better theater I am able to stage of other writers’ tales when reading aloud for my family.
Dorothy Ross is a native New Yorker who worked on Madison Avenue before moving west in 1961. On the Davis campus of the University of California she served as an editor and program director. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2007, Dorothy now volunteers with the PD community, organizing events and writing about the challenges of living with Parkinson’s. Her essays, published in several print anthologies and online journals, are personal and playful, with the goal of educating people about PD and amusing them at the same time.