When I was in the third grade, my neighbor, Mrs. Cris — a 60-year-old woman with grown children — invited me and two other girls to form a weekly reading club. On Wednesdays, Mrs. Cris would serve us buttery Danish cookies, and juice in fancy punch glasses. We would sit on the floor while Mrs. Cris settled into the high-backed chair in front of the fireplace, and she would read out loud to us.
We would lie about it to other kids, what we did on Wednesdays. It wasn’t because I was ashamed, it never occurred to me that a reading club might be considered uncool. I lied because I didn’t want my other friends to be envious, and because I didn’t want anyone else to be added to the club. It was our secret, my favorite day of the week.
Over the next few years, we read The Hobbit, Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Secret Garden. At home, I read books almost exclusively about horses or dogs — Black Beauty, Misty of Chincoteague, Lad a Dog, The Red Pony, Shiloh. There’s no shortage of great books about horses and dogs, but Wednesday reading club was first a lesson that books didn’t have to be about a topic you liked to be enjoyable.
My mother had spent many years reading aloud to me, but this club was not bedtime reading, it was not something designed to wind us down, put us to sleep. It was a weekly afternoon party, with a certain level of formality that I enjoyed: Mrs. Cris was the only adult in the neighborhood who went by Mrs., we were expected to always sit quietly, and the snacks she served were not advertised on Nickelodeon, instead it was always the Royal Dansk cookies in the round blue tin. It also never felt like we were being babysat. I was keenly aware that Mrs. Cris was not being paid, and I felt she was not doing this as a favor for our parents (although, of course, I know my mother appreciated the time off), instead I was sure that Mrs. Cris was doing it because she wanted to spend time with us. She was not a teacher, not a relative; she was my first adult friend.
Reading club fell apart somewhere in middle school, when soccer practice and clarinet lessons and trips to the mall took up all our after school time. But I still liked to be read to, and I liked to read aloud, even during the awkward, moody teenage years to come. I loved when we read plays in English class, because we’d do a read through of the whole thing. I was too shy to audition for the high school play, but I thought I was a very memorable Martha when our senior English class read Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
When I got to college, my roommate, Jessica, was my only friend for a good chunk of the year. We had the kind of friendship where it felt like you didn’t need anyone else in the world but each other, so we didn’t go looking for other friends until the first year was almost up. Often, before bed, I would read Jess poems from my Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. Of course, it seems a little pretentious to me now, except that I wasn’t doing it as any kind of performance. It was just something I’d learned that friends do for one another, something that brings you closer.
Years after college, I visited Jessica at her studio apartment in Virginia, both of us adrift in our mid-20s. After a few glasses of wine, I read her and her new boyfriend a story I loved — “Sea Oak” by George Saunders.
“I didn’t really like your friend until she read us the story,” Jess’s boyfriend would tell her later, and she’d pass that on to me.
“I wasn’t sure if I liked him either,” I teased.
But I have a theory on why her boyfriend liked me by the end of “Sea Oak:” in order to understand a story that is read aloud, you must listen intently. Your mind cannot wander, you must concentrate on the words. Listening to someone read out loud is like that experiment where you stare into another person’s eyes for four minutes and by the end, you’re in love with that person. It’s too intimate an experience to share with someone you dislike.
During those adrift 20s, I worked in a small bookstore for two years, and listened to upwards of 50 readings. There were authors I was extremely intimidated by (Mary Gaitskill) and authors who were easy to talk to (Laura van den Berg liked my glasses and told me about her dog; Rachel Kushner complained about missing her husband while on tour, Jim Shepard hugged me). There were some great performances, some droning voices, and a few authors with overinflated egos, but I never tired of listening. Even books that I didn’t like on the page came alive during a reading. I think that’s a common experience, many of us are much more generous listeners than we are readers. There were only two times my co-booksellers and I ever liked the author less after a reading: an extremely racist travel memoir, and a local author whose crowd trashed the store.
Most times, when authors left the store after a reading, I felt like they were a new friend, even if I’d barely spoken to them. Every time I hand-sold one of their books afterwards, I felt a sense of personal pride, as if my distant cousin had written the book I’d recommended, as if I was keeping the royalty checks in the family.
More recently, my husband and I went through a rough patch — our beloved dog had died. I was growing more and more depressed, the election results didn’t help — and we’d been coping by zoning out in front of Netflix with a bottle of wine. Then, I spent one night reading aloud to him, just on a whim. I plucked Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris from the shelf, since I knew I could count on Sedaris for humor. My husband lay on the floor underneath the loveseat where I perched (someday, when we’re rich, I always say, we’ll buy a full-sized couch that fits both of us) and he listened as I read. He didn’t play around on his phone. When we went to bed that night, I felt like we’d solved something. I didn’t feel so sad, and somehow life didn’t feel as meaningless. It was a way to connect that I’d forgotten about. It launched something healing for me, like a heaping serving of a comfort food. It was a bonding tool I’d been taught when I was young, back when it didn’t matter what size couch you had, because we always sat on the floor anyways, legs criss-cross applesauce.
When Mrs. Cris turned 80 a few years ago, our neighborhood threw a lobster bake. We blocked off the dead-end street my parents live on, we rented folding tables and set up the party on the street. We all wore ridiculous hats that night, at someone’s specific request. During the time for speeches, I stood up in my wide-brimmed Kentucky Derby hat, and talked a little bit about the reading group that Mrs. Cris started 20 years before, and what a profound effect it had on me as a reader and as a writer, and what’s more — as a person. The Reading Club taught me the importance of careful, concentrated listening, and taught me that I could find friends outside my immediate peer group. It taught me reading a story aloud is a way to take care of someone, a kind of care-taking that isn’t overbearing or smothering, and doesn’t feel like babysitting. As adults, reading aloud to one another is something we think we might have grown out of, but that’s only because we’ve forgotten how intimate and cozy it is to be read to, or to read aloud to someone who listens. It’s a simple, low-maintenance way to connect. And if you can tell a good story, I now believe, you can win anyone over, even the most skeptical of listeners. Especially if you serve cookies.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.