And now I want to tell you about my late Uncle Alex. He was my father’s kid brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest life insurance salesman in Indianapolis. He was well-read and wise. And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, "If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is." So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.
-Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without A Country
When I started this book-a-week reading project, I didn't intend it to be Vonnegut heavy, but it is. I read Breakfast of Champions with a book club a few weeks ago, and I'm currently in the midst of The Vonnegut Statement and Bluebeard (probably my favorite).
Carol and I will pick out a book to read together, which usually mean I read it aloud as she falls to sleep. Short, light books work best; something with small chapters and not too many big words for me to stumble on.
I had read A Man Without A Country years ago when it first came out in 2007 and again a year or so later. I prefer his earlier collection of essays, Palm Sunday, which is deeper, denser and more tightly woven. But A Man Without A Country is the perfect late night read: funny and insightful, but brief and disjointed enough to be easy to put down.
Reading aloud is an enjoyable experience, if you're in the hands of a talented author. Mediocre work, I have found, remains mediocre. Some of the best (Joyce, Twain, Beckett) are a challenge without reading out loud. Some of the very good ones (Hemingway, Steinbeck, Vonnegut) are made significantly better out loud.
(It occurs to me that this list is entirely male, but those names are the ones that sprang to my mind when I thought of writers with a powerful "voice"; I wonder if this list reveals my preferences, in the same way that I prefer female folk singers but male rock-and-rollers, or if it is a result of socialization and the male dominance of "The Great Books"?).
Read out loud forces me to slow down, to absorb a little more, to pick up on the rhyme and cadence of the writing. It also allows ample time for me to make and repeat mistakes (it's the Sermon on the Mount, not the Mound; pitchers and catchers reported on Sunday, I must have had baseball on the brain).