Reading Books With Heart
As Father’s Day fast approaches, I thought it appropriate to share one of the purest joys in my life, a joy made clear to me as a father. Please don’t consider it too simple to be true. Reading aloud is real-life magic. Yes, holding a book in your hands, reading aloud with one voice to the ears of another or several has an unparalleled effect on the soul.
Though it does sound simple enough there is a craft to this age-old pastime. It starts of course with a relationship of some sort (reading aloud can also be a great start of a relationship too). Next, you’ll need the right words, some practiced inflection/timing, and as always, just the right lighting.
Admittedly, recognizing this simple joy in my life came after becoming a father, but now that I know the true power of reading aloud, I begin to see all sorts of possibilities. If nothing else, I hope the words that follow fuels within you a desire to read to someone you love.
Parent to child is perhaps the most obvious. As a father to small children, I have spent hours and hours reading to my children. Early mornings, on airplanes, in line, on the floor, outside, and of course at bedtime. I would say I owe a large part of my happy relationship with my children to reading. We laugh together, we get dozy, we drone on too long before quitting and we share a common narrative intertwined with folklore, fairy tales, family history, facts and funnies. Moments reading to my children have a happy glow in my memory.
Grandchild to Grandparent: My latest foray into reading aloud has been my grandparents. I have a wonderful relationship with them but don’t see them as often as I would like to. Recently they moved just down the street from where I work and I have decided to devote one lunch hour each week to a read aloud session with my grandparents. The joy is just as real with them as it is with my children! I can hardly explain why. Not sure if it is the way my grandpa interrupts me to ask me how I got so smart/good-looking/old or the delight in my grandmother’s laugh when a turn of phrase tickles her just right.
Husband to wife (and vice versa): Reading to your spouse is another fun bit of magic. I read to my wife every night. I have siblings who do the same. The reason I am the designated reader is so that she can close her eyes and start to drift off. We don’t read very long and sometimes one of us stays up a little longer but it is a highly connective way to end the day together and avoid the pitfalls and rabbit holes of screens in bed.
My belief is that almost any relationship will be enhanced by reading together. To the point that reading may be a great way to create a relationship, I have been thinking a lot about the old practice of hiring someone to read to you. Imagine Jo and Aunt March from Little Women. The wealthy aunt singling out the right girl at the right time to come and read to her. Do people still do this? If not, I propose we start. Maybe you are in the position to pay a grandchild or neighbor to come read to you or someone else. Perhaps more likely, you are in a position to offer your reading services to someone in need. Either way, I don’t think you will regret the time once you see what grows out of reading aloud.
Selecting the Right Words
Choosing the right book is important of course, but not vital. Just get started! The more you read the more refined your selection sense will be. The more you know about a person the better your ability to select just the right thing. To get you started, here are a few questions you might ask. What books are in your top 10? What is weighing on you at the moment? What inspires you lately?
In general, this discussion is too large for a single post. Selecting out of all the books available in your local library or even the curated selection in our shop is still daunting. For our purposes let’s refine our discussion of selection to Father’s Day.
Rather than selecting a book that the man in your life will enjoy on his own. Consider giving him a book to read aloud. We have some pretty awesome suggestions and some delightful gifts to go with them.
At different points in my life I have read or been read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings in full and part. Tolkien’s world is full of mysticism and good old wisdom. My favorite quote comes from the point where Frodo and Samwise have ventured out alone to finish the task of the fellowship. At a low point we read:
“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”
Who would not want their children to hear such word magic, and feel similar feelings of hope and resilience? Sure you wade through some epic battles and ballads which might go over their heads but the greatest writing is great for precisely that reason. The text is inexhaustible. You can read over and over at different ages and stages to only find more depth, wisdom, knowledge and refinement.
Recently we invested a bit of time and resources in creating the Heirloom version of Tolkien and Harry Potter collections. We are delighted with the quality and utility of what we found and wished we could find more that qualified. Matching the richness of the worlds created was tricky in today’s over consumptive world. You can’t go wrong with the facsimile edition of The Hobbit or it’s hobbit sized pocket version!
So speaking of Harry Potter...the lessons to be learned are real, paired with a bit of youthful entertainment and magic. Harry’s connections to his parents and other father like figures make it a great read aloud from Father to child. In just one moment of reflection we read:
“You think the dead we loved ever truly leave us? You think that we don't recall them more clearly than ever in times of great trouble? Your father is alive in you, Harry, and shows himself most plainly when you have need of him....You found him inside yourself.”
We found that perhaps the most magical and heirloom version of Harry Potter is the new interactive series designed by the graphic team behind the movies. Minalima designed the wonderful interactive classics series we have carried for years and recently started launching the Harry Potter series in succession. Only the first two books are available and they are worth the wait. Do you remember the excitement as each new Harry Potter book was released?
A few more favorite read alouds that both father and child will enjoy are part of our Puffin Children’s collection. Peter Pan, Treasure Island, and Railway Children are all great reads. Though out of print at this point my all time favorite read aloud was Seacrow Island by Astrid Lindgren.
For my really young children picture books are amazing. Reading old favorites like Baby Animals and Fortunately to my babies creates a habit where we can enjoy later the bright illustrations and longer stories of Elsa Beskow, Barbara Cooney, or Bernadette Watts. Our most recent favorite have been the collection of Chirri & Chirra books.
Now, perhaps your father doesn’t love fantasy or doesn’t have young people to read to. One of our favorite authors who is slowly going out of print and harder and harder to find is David Grayson. You can read our journal on Mr Grayson here. He felt as strongly as we do about books:
“What a convenient and delightful world is this world of books!-if you bring to it not the obligations of the student, or look upon it as an opiate for idleness, but enter it rather with the enthusiasm of the adventurer!"
Speaking of adventure in books, we also carry several books written as memoirs from fathers their children. Rules for a Knight by actor Ethan Hawke is a journey understanding chivalry and a moral code we all could refine. Life of Our Lord is Charles Dicken’s retelling of the story of Christ in his own words for his children. Last but surely not least, we send you back to Tolkien with Letters from Father Christmas. Yes it’s a Christmas book but it is also a remarkable representation of what intentional and creative fathering might look like.
Selecting the right book is a common gifting strategy. Adding the element of selecting a book intended to be read aloud takes that to a new dimension.
Inflection and Timing
Practice makes perfect. When reading aloud you are not under the lights in full production mode. The angst of acting is taken off the table. Reading with a bit of energy though makes all the difference. An accent goes along way, especially if it is amateur mimicry. A whisper brings small ears closer while an explosive burst of volume might make them jump and laugh. If you are as interested in the book as they are most of this will come naturally.
Don’t forget to take the time to answer questions, laugh really hard for too long, or deal with a sensitive issue. If you are familiar with The Princess Bride or have every watched it with children you will see the genius of each perfectly timed flashback to the grandfather carefully coaching his grandson through a bit of romance or an unfair outcome. My kids were always just about to run out of the room when suddenly the story is interrupted for grandfather to smooth things out.
Ambience and the Right Lighting
One more of the keys to a successful read aloud session is your surroundings. I’ve had most fun with this when traveling. The schedule is always a bit mixed up and reading seems to bring back the feeling of familiarity and continuity. Reading the beautifully illustrated Treasure Island while on an exotic island, or The Once and Future King while touring castles in merry England have been the exceptional highlights.
More often it might be Huck Finn on a cozy blanket on the grass or in a fort we build. Most often it is snuggled up close on the couch or bed reading whatever is nearby.
For these and any other moments the lighting can help create a bit of mystery and magic. Open the blinds to let golden rays of sunset stream through, or the soft dusk lighting after the sun has gone down. Flip on a lamp or stoke a fire. Read by flashlight or candlelight. Set the tone by eliminating distracting toys, phones, rooms etcetera and sink deep into the book and the arms and knees and elbows of those you love.
Not every session is as magic as the next, but this summer may we suggest giving books with one more level of intention and interaction. Choose books for yourself or others that will foster a relationship as well as inspire. Find someone to read aloud to or with and just get started. You will cherish the book the brings joy, but you will cherish the moment and the people even more.