Not too long ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to do a reading at a local Hollywood bar. Being well aware that people can only endure being read to for so long, I chose a particularly short piece, and was finished reading my story after three or four minutes.
Others were not so lucky. As I sat there listening to a well-respected writer repeat the phrase “she said” for the umpteenth time in what felt like ten hours but was really ten minutes, it occurred to me that words, when read aloud, can sound incredibly different than they do in our head when reading along with a good book.
Perhaps this is the reason teachers tell their students to proofread their essays by reading them aloud. After all, it’s easy to skip over mistakes when reading along to ourselves. We know how we want our words to sound, sure, but there’s something about hearing the words that helps us realize what words belong in prose, and what words do not.
Some pieces are made stronger by their very sound. Take, for example, the work of David Sedaris. I giggle when I read his short stories recounting his troubled (albeit hilarious) childhood; yet I full on guffaw when I hear David Sedaris read his work out loud. This is why plenty of readers-turned-fans like myself will pay good money to hear him read. There’s something about David Sedaris recounting his own unique adventures, using his own unique voice, with his performance sensibilities, that just adds to the hilarity of his situations. Very few writers, I feel, can really add to their writing by simply reading it. David Sedaris is one of that select few.
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Other works are not so lucky. Scholarly essays are never fun when read directly to you, and the last time someone straight read me an opinion piece I fell asleep in under five minutes. Who needs Lunesta or Ambien when you can just have a friend read you an essay on the mating habits of frogs? For those particular pieces, I believe a radio program or podcast (like RadioLab or This American Life) work best.
Perhaps, then, it is pieces with real “voice” that work best when vocalized. The Catcher in the Rye, The Bell Jar, Lolita—those are all first-person narratives that literally sing off the page. Of course, there are third and second person narrator stories that work just as well—the works of Lorrie Moore, Aimee Bender, Haruki Marukami, and Joshua Ferris come to mind.
There’s likely a scientific explanation for all of this. Maybe someone, somewhere, has done a study on why certain stories are far more pleasing to our brains when heard rather than when read. And maybe I’ll read a study about it someday. But the chances of me reading it to my partner are slim to nothing.
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Do you enjoy reading out loud – or being read to? Tell us in a comment!