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The Experience of Reading Diana Wynne Jones [Non-fiction] Aloud

Today’s post will be relatively short, but let me start by asking a question: when was the last time you read a book aloud to another adult?

Around Christmas time, I picked up a copy of Diana Wynne Jones’ Reflections: On the Magic of Writing, which is an excellent collection of much of her non-fiction about writing. I could (and plan to) write an entire blog post just on the subject of that book, but instead I wanted to spend a little time discussing an interesting experiment that my wife and I have engaged in.

Most of us, when we read out loud do so with children. Of course, this can be great fun (even if the kids insist on hearing the same story time and time again), but it is a completely different experience from reading to adults. A public reading is a different beast entirely, mainly due to its performance nature. But for the past several weeks, my wife and I have been reading the essays in Jones’ Reflections to each other, and this personal, private experience has been quite eye-opening on many levels.

My wife and I are both readers. I read for pleasure, and she reads for both enjoyment and work (as a children’s book editor, it goes with the territory). We both have read many of the same books, and we enjoy many of the same authors (though our tastes vary widely). Being an autodidact, I’ve learned most of what I know by having read it somewhere. So reading non-fiction, especially about writing or literature, is nothing new. Because for many years I traveled extensively, I also have listened to quite a fair share of non-fiction audiobooks. But none have been close to the sheer joy of reading and having Reflections read to me.

The first major difference between reading a book to myself and having it read to me goes to the way in which I process information. I read very quickly, and I tend to integrate and internalize what I have read quickly. As a result, I pay scant attention to the construction of an author’s rhetorical argument. Instead, I wish to focus on their point. But having Reflections read aloud to me instead focuses my attention not just on what is being said, but equally on how it is said.

Whether this is good or not, I can’t say. But it is different. It gives me a better sense of how Jones constructs her arguments, for how she frames them. The act of reading them aloud focuses my attention on the sequence of her thoughts, which is itself an important point of information. On the face of it, this experience is not so different from that of listening to an audiobook.

When I listen to an audiobook, I too focus more on the sequence and rhetoric, on the way in which sentences are constructed. But an audiobook is not interactive. It forces me to listen at the reader’s pace, and prevents interpretative digressions or discussions. The facility to pause reading and crack a joke, or stop and discuss a point that Jones just made, fundamentally deepens the meaning and insight that I can get from a book.

Being such book people, we often discuss books we have read, are reading, or will read. But when we consume a book in parallel – when one of us reads it out loud to the other – it aligns our singular reading experiences in an interesting way. And this, in turn, opens interesting avenues for discussion. If we had read her essay on the narrative structure of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings separately, I think our resulting discussion of its ideas would have been very different. Perhaps no less interesting, but qualitatively different.

From a writing standpoint, reading her non-fiction essays out loud really draws attention to the way that she constructs her sentences and paragraphs. Many of us like to think of ourselves as auditory writers. I know I think of myself that way: I love how words sound, and as I write I think about how they will sound together. Diana Wynne Jones – even in her non-fiction – clearly constructed her sentences with their assonance and rhythms in mind. Which just adds yet another dimension to the whole experience, one which I don’t think one can get from reading non-fiction silently.

This isn’t so much a critical discussion of the book (that I’ve got planned for next week), but rather this is just a couple of interesting observations about the experience of reading Diana Wynne Jones’ non-fiction aloud. It’s been an interesting and incredibly enjoyable experience, and I’m looking forward to seeing whether that experience carries through to other non-fiction authors. Have any of you tried it? If so, what has that experience been like for you?

One Comment Post a comment
  1. In the first year or so of our marriage (aeons ago, well, last century) we did read to each other, things like Joan Aiken’s short story collections or Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies. It was, I suppose, a way of sharing when we were younger. The only time we read to each other now is when we find a snippet of news interesting when perusing different sections of the Saturday Guardian, and then it can get a little … annoying. I do agree with you, though, about it being a different experience.

    I’ll be interested to read your reactions to Reflections. Mine, if you’re interested, are here:

    March 7, 2013

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