A book by candlelight

May 20, 2009 at 9:52 pm (books)

the readerMary Augusta Austen-Leigh writes of her father (in James Edward Austen-Leigh: A Memoir; private printing, 1911): “Another evening enjoyment was hearing our father read aloud — and this he often did, most admirably as to tone of voice, manner, taste, and judgement. Nothing was wanted in his rendering either of light or of serious authors. When the subject was dramatic, he could always make the characters, to use his Aunt Jane’s expression, ‘speak as they should do,’ yet neither the comic nor the pathetic parts were ever overdone by him.”

It is therefore of interest to me (who reads aloud to herself, sometimes…), to see the recent New York Times article by Verlyn Klinkenborg, with the rather prosaic title “Some Thoughts on the Lost Art of Reading Aloud.” The thrust of her article centers on audio books (my father loves them, especially when on a long-distance trip; I am less enthusiastic – but more on that subject below). Yet her argument includes this provoking thought: “…from the perspective of a reader in, say, the early 19th century, about the time of Jane Austen, there is something peculiar about it, even lonely. In those days, literate families and friends read aloud to each other as a matter of habit. Books were still relatively scarce and expensive [not a problem for the Smiths or Goslings!]…. [T]he thought of all those solitary 21st-century individuals hearkening to earbuds and car radios would seem isolating.” Never thought about reading in that manner, but we do treat reading as a ‘solitary’ pursuit, rather than a group activity (think back to Gone With the Wind, when in the film Melanie reads from David Copperfield while Scarlett’s husband, Ashley and Klansmen have gone out to avenge Scarlett…).

Klinkenborg then raises the spector of music-making at home, versus listening on the radio &c. As a non-musician (but exceptionally interested in classical music and opera), I envy the singing and playing Emma, Mary and their siblings are able to do during the odd evening home.

The main reason for this post, however, is Klinkenborg’s comment that “But listening aloud, valuable as it is, isn’t the same as reading aloud.” She adds the point that “…one of the most basic tests of comprehension is to ask someone to read aloud from a book. It reveals far more than whether the reader understands the words. It reveals how far into the words — and the pattern of the words — the reader really sees. Reading aloud recaptures the physicality of words.”

Yes, yes, and again, YES!

I must confess that I read aloud, especially my own work. There is something about the ‘drama’ behind the spoken word that alerts me (quickly) if a phrase needs a little ‘umph’, or the pacing or rhythm of a sentence works — or doesn’t. Cadences, in speech as in music, are of utmost importance!

Klinkenborg’s article also makes me envision old books.  The ones I have interlibrary loaned are small, the perfect size to fit in the palm of the hand. They are not heavy, probably could even have been slipped into the linen pocket of a young lady, yet (coming in multi-volumes) are not the slim nothing books often published today. The lines per page are also well laid out, uncramped. And what I love the most: that dangling word on the bottom of the page, giving a glimpse of the word to come so that the rhythm of the reader isn’t interrupted by the turning of the page!

Pity that publishing ever progressed from the multi-volume book to the trade paperback and now to the Kindle. I would be the first to applaud an entire library on one little hand-held device, but what a pain endnotes must be – even footnotes, if you can’t see an entire page at one glance! The best description of a book and how it feels in the reader’s hands just has to be the opening of A.S. Byatt’s Possession! There’s a writer who is also a reader, for she explains the passion for a book, its feel and smell, with such true feeling!

One part of Klinkenborg I must disagree with is her inclusion of Mansfield Park and the reading scene where Henry Crawford picks up Shakespeare. Klinkenborg’s assessment of Henry’s character is not in question, but the fact that she highlights this scene in which a PLAY is read aloud. Not quite the same thing as reading a novel, where one must become not only diverse characters, but the narrator as well.

I like best Klinkenborg’s comment that when one reads to oneself you lose ‘the life of the language’ — something Austen and Shakespeare each have brought to their audiences. The ‘life of the language’ is particularly important when reading diaries (very private thoughts) and letters (semi-private thoughts); we cannot always know what a writer means, given their shorthand, lack of punctuation, inner-thoughts, and also the language of their time when it differs (even slightly) from our own. Then there is the England English versus American English! I cannot always anticipate when my Norfolk friend Kate might take in when we read the same pieces; she brings her English background while I only bring my knowledge.

Anyway, I invite readers to delve into an Austen (see her first editions on books.google; links at right), and read her aloud! Even if only to yourself.

Oh yes! Audio books: I heartily recommend the couple chapters of Austen as read by Chris Goringe. Is it his accent? Partly. His enthusiastic rendering? Definitely! Pity he didn’t record the entire Pride & Prejudice! But thank goodness for the few chapters (especially the opening chapters) he did record. Find the online audio book at LibriVox. I adore his rendering of the line “She is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld!” (Bingley; about Jane Bennet, of course!)


  1. Janeite Deb said,

    How funny Kelly – I was going to do a post on this article as well! – the lost art and the joys of reading aloud. I appreciate your musings on the subject!

    I have a friend who reads P&P at least once a year – she has a new beau [who knows nothing of Austen] – she has been reading P&P aloud to him and it has opened up a whole new world for both of them – even she is seeing things she never saw before – they are now on to Persuasion! – I will write more on this –

    I agree with you about the Mansfield Park example – the better comparison would have been Edward Ferrars reading in S&S – and Marianne’s criticism of it when compared to Willoughby; and of course there is your favorite Mr. Collins reading the Sermons in P&P! – Austen used the reading aloud scenario to deliniate character in her works; but the works themselves were also meant to be read aloud – this is most apparent in her Juvenilia – must be listened to and read aloud to oneself to get the full impact of her youthful wit!

    Perhaps we should just do a JASNA-Vermont gathering on reading aloud!

  2. Janeite Kelly said,

    One favorite memory of my trip to Winchester (summer 2007) is the charity luncheon Helen Lefroy brought me to – the speaker was Prof. Michael Wheeler. It was a THRILL to meet him because he taught at Roehampton University, which has as part of its campus ROEHAMPTON GROVE HOUSE, once owned by the Goslings!! (But I digress…)

    Michael’s talk was on the beginnings of Austen’s novels – and he, of course, read the first few paragraphs aloud, and dissected them. He had his audience ROLLING in the aisles with laughter! I truly never realized that Austen was so hilarious.

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