Saturday, November 16, 2013

Reading aloud

'Virgil reading "The Aeneid" to Augustus, Octavia and Livia,"
by Jean Baptiste Joseph Wicar (Art Institute of Chicago)

     Should I be embarrassed to admit that I once read The Odyssey aloud to my wife?
     I am, a bit.
     Not sure why. It sounds so ... decadent. 
     And she permitted it. To be honest, it was so long ago — pre-children — that the only aspect I remember is explaining, "It's supposed to be read aloud." Actually, it's supposed to be memorized and recited. But that's asking a lot in the modern world.
     Trying to be thorough, checking, I see the copyright date for our edition is 1996. So the oldest boy, Ross, was around. I must have read it during our first year with a newborn. 
     No wonder I don't remember it.
     Afterward, I tended to read to him; the younger boy would hover nearby, but never took to it in the same way. They're different kids. 
     The plan had been to read Dickens. I distinctly remember, before he was born, hunting around used book stores for an attractive set of Dickens to read during what I imagined to be the endless expanse of enforced idleness and eternal vigilance of parenthood.
     I never found the right set.
     Which is just as well, because I'm no particular fan of Dickens.
     Instead, when Ross was small — say 2 — I seized what was at hand, a lovely red facsimile of the first edition of Lewis Carol's Alice in Wonderland books, and read those to him. They're heavy lifting for toddlers — not really children's books at all or, rather, books for Victorian children, who seem to have been a more patient and attentive lot. Didn't matter; Ross enjoyed them.
     And so did I. I want to be sure that I don't cast reading to him as some sort of parental sacrifice. It wasn't. I loved it. The ritual, getting ourselves settled, cracking the book to the place where we left off, the rhythm of reading, interrupted by questions, using different voices for the characters. I did a great Mad-Eye Moody in the Harry Potter books, gruff and snarling, "Constant vigilance!"
     Loved it. That's pretty much true for the entire parenting process; I see that now that the boys are both setting themselves in a runner's crouch, in the blocks, waiting for the starting gun to leap up and race off into their own lives, college and careers. 
      I'm lucky that way. Parenthood is hard enough when you love it. But I like to talk and I like to read and I like to experience new things, activities all the more sweet when you have  someone to do them with.
     After Alice I and II, it was adventure books, at first: Treasure Island — the dialect made it hard to read — and the entire Harry Potter series, several times, because each time a new one came out we'd go back and read them again. I had resisted, assumed that anything that popular had to be crap. But they really are wonderful books, and it was a thrill to be a parent of young children while they were being written. 
Reading 'The Odyssey,' summer 2005.
   As he got older, we turned classical. Seamus Heany's excellent Beowulf. Then the Iliad, Odyssey and Aeneid—the beautiful translations of Robert Fagles. Homer's tales are more simple, pure and true. But something about Virgil, he just packs more drama into his re-hash. There's no Trojan horse in Homer, [not true, as sharp-eyed reader Tricia Kessie of Glenview points out; in Book 8 of The Odyssey, during the song competition, the harper sings of the wooden horse, briefly] no Queen Dido, those are Virgil's additions. It's slicker, more polished, which is good and bad. Homer is to The Aeneid as Moby-Dick would be to a novel George W. Bush asked John Irving to write recasting Moby-Dick in order to better  promote New England tourism.

     As Ross got older, we got more complicated. He picked Dante's Inferno, the Robert Pinsky translation, off my office shelves -- I never would have picked it myself. I had read it when I was 35, didn't think much of it. I argued, but he persisted, as he tends to do, and I shrugged and went along -- we began reading it on the shores of Lake Michigan, at a friend's place in Michigan City. 
     The book had done little for me before, but when I was 46, however, having been through the mill, my outlook had changed, and I liked it immensely, as did he. So much so that he insisted we read Robert and Jean Hollander's translation of Purgatorio and Paradiso, the second and third volumes of the trilogy. If I said we had some wonderful laughs reading those, would you believe me? We did. Beatrice is such a scold. 
     We only abandoned two -- Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. It was so bleak, so psychological. We just ran out of steam, cast the book aside. I almost suggested Lord Jim, but that's a slog, with more homoerotic overtones than I felt like delving into. I guess we also quit Remembrance of Things Past, but so early on, probably within 15 minutes, that it hardly counts. Not because it was dull, I believe. The length daunted him. 
     I wanted to read Don Quixote, because I never have. But he nixed that idea. For the past ... gee... three or four or five years, it's been Tolstoy's War and Peace, a vivid translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. I liked that it included the French; 3 percent of the novel is in French, with the Russian aristocrats would speak. I'd read the French and then translate, which was good for him, because he's studying it.
     The secret about War and Peace is it's not boring; it's thrilling. It's the original romance novel: with war and, umm, peace, love, plus cameos by famous characters. When a horse comes snorting and foaming and sidestepping into a scene, you are reminded that Tolstoy had a farm, and knew horses.
      We would have finished it long ago, but the pattern was for me to read to him before he went to bed, and for the longest time he stays up later than me.
     But we're nearly done -- some 30 pages from the end. It seems like we've been 30 pages from the end for a year, if not two. True, the characters fade from view as Tolstoy prattles on about history and the book falls apart at the end. Rather like Tolstoy himself. Maybe I'm  rationalizing mediocrity, but it's hard to feel bad about not being Tolstoy once you realize how little being Tolstoy did for Tolstoy himself. 
     A psychologist would suggest that Ross and I don't want to finish it, neither wanting to close the door on that part of our lives. But that would be romanticizing. The truth is, he never thinks of it at all. I do, spying the thick, dog-eared volume on the coffee table shelf, and I think: Finish the damn book.
     Friday night, at dinner, he had the new New Yorker next to his plate. He never opened it, but I could tell he was eyeing it, he wanted to. "We should be able to read at dinner," he said. 
    "It's rude," my wife said.
    "Hey," I interjected, sensing an opening. "We've got to finish War and Peace."
    "Before I go to college," he promised.
     So that gives us nine months. I'll hold him to that. I do want to finish it, again. It seems only right. Even knowing that when we're done, we'll never read another book together again. Or if we do, it will be him reading to me next time. 


  1. You must be the only parent that reads to to a college age person. I do admire your son wanting to read the New Yorker. I rarely read only because I don't want to spend the money. I read enough interesting stuff on line. I don't know how interested you or your son is in sports but I would introduce him to the great Roger Angell. He is 93 and is still writing. I think he has been writing about baseball for the New Yorker since 1952. He would usually write two long pieces a year. One during spring training and one after the World Series. He is not your typical sports writer. While I don't check it often enough he also writes on line at the New Yorker as well.

  2. Enjoy your time with your boys.

  3. Thanks for such an inspiring and fun post! Our kids are 7 and 8 and reading them to every night is my favorite part of being a parent ... and they love it too! I wonder if you remember roughly what age your son was for the classical books like the Iliad, etc ... basically, the books you write about after the paragraph that begins "as he got older". I haven't read those myself and would love to experience them with my kids and wondering how far ahead that is. I recently read an interview by Doris Kearns Goodwin in which she said that she would love to read War and Peace to her grandkids some day (which led me to do a search on W & P as a read-aloud, which led me to your post!). It sounds like you started that one when your son was in his mid-teens? Anyway, thanks for this wonderful post!

  4. To celebrate World Book Day, I read this historic 8-year-old post, via your Twitter link. This must have been in the early days of EGD, or I imagine I'd have commented on the intriguing detail that you weren't captivated by Inferno even at age 35, but were at 46. Having since noted your strong appreciation of Dante, that seems pretty interesting to me.

    In between then and now, I also read that translation of War and Peace. Unlike you, I was annoyed by the French passages, though I appreciated the concept of rendering the work as intended.

    Would it be presumptuous to ask for a sentence or two about actually finishing the last 30 pages, NS? Which it seems like you must have. Or would you prefer that to remain "behind the veil"?

    1. Not at all. It was complicated by the fact that, in my opinion, the storyline kinda falls apart at the end and Tolstoy gets on his soapbox. In my memory we ripped through it the night before he left. We wanted to get it done. He never mentioned any of that reading ever again, not in the past eight years, not even when we were in Florence together. A little heartbreaking really.

    2. Whoa, that's an unexpected conclusion. I agree about the soapbox and the less than spirited ending to the book. While that's a pretty melancholy postscript to this charming post, I appreciate the response.


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.