If we were lucky, we were read to when we were young. If we didn’t have parents or siblings to read to us (and I hope you all did), maybe you had a generous teacher. My fifth-grade teacher at Endion Elementary School in Duluth, Mr. Anderson (as a child it never occurred to me that he might have a first name), read “The Call of the Wild” out loud to us, a chapter every Friday afternoon, but only if we had been well behaved.
I looked forward to this all week. I loved Jack London’s story, even though the first sentence sent me off in the wrong direction for weeks. (“Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing.” ) I didn’t immediately understand that Buck was a dog.
So I was delighted when reader Cora Scholz wrote me not long ago. She and her husband are both in their 80s, and while her husband doesn’t do a lot of reading himself, he loves having her read to him.
They have already worked their way through a diverse and wide-ranging list: “Sense and Sensibility” by Jane Austen. “Ordinary Grace” by William Kent Krueger. “Our Souls at Night” by Kent Haruf. And most recently, “The Boys in the Boat,” Daniel James Brown’s nonfiction account of American rowers and the 1936 Olympics, and Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Olive Kitteridge.”
“When one is reading aloud, the language is so important,” Cora wrote. “The first book I read to my husband several years ago was Ivan Doig’s ‘This House of Sky’; the language was elegant.”
She wondered if I had titles to recommend.
This took some thought. Language is important, yes. But also: The story should move quickly, and it should have plenty of action. Maybe there should be cliffhangers, and dialogue, so the person who is reading can have some fun doing different voices.
My first thoughts were of nonfiction books that read like fiction: Timothy Egan’s “The Worst Hard Time,” his well-reported and cinematic history of the Dust Bowl.
Nigel Cliff’s entertaining biography of Van Cliburn, “Moscow Nights,” which is filled with great, amusing anecdotes.
Anything by Erik Larson — maybe “Isaac’s Storm,” for the drama of the hurricane, or “The Devil in the White City,” with the murder mystery set against the backdrop of the Chicago World’s Fair.
In fiction, I suggested Anne Tyler’s “Vinegar Girl,” her retelling of “The Taming of the Shrew.” One character has a Russian accent, which might be entertaining.
Or Paulette Jiles’ “News of the World,” her novel — a National Book Award finalist — about an elderly man and a little girl in Texas right after the Civil War. A captivating story, and plenty of cliffhangers. (“This sounds like a winner!” said Cora.)
It is a comforting thing to be read aloud to, an act of love. Books on tape (or CD) cannot capture the intimacy of one person’s voice in a quiet room, the joy of sharing the story as it unfolds, the jokes as they happen, the drama as it builds.
Being read to begins when we are young, but if we are very lucky, it will happen again and again throughout our lives. Pick a book. Offer to read to someone. See what they say. See how they listen.
What books would you recommend to be read aloud? Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune senior editor for books. On Twitter: @StribBooks. On Facebook: www.facebook.com/startribunebooks