Charles Petzold

Car Wellness

October 20, 2011
New York, N.Y.

Soon after I started reading books on my own, I tried reading books in the car, and very quickly discovered this wasn't such a great idea. After a couple incidences of "Mom, I'm going to be sick right away," my mother banned me from reading in the car. Now when I think back about the long car trips we took when I was a kid, I can only picture myself staring out the passenger-side window, my chin on my hand, bored out of my mind and wishing I were reading a book.

But human bodies change over time, it seems. As we get older we eat different foods, move different muscles, adopt different habits. I used to be an evening person, for example, and now I'm a morning person.

In recent years I've been experimenting with once again reading in the car — at first in small doses but later in longer stretches — and I haven't gotten sick yet. I won't claim I've grown entirely immune to car sickness: I will still experience a little queasiness and even belching, but it seems that as we get older we also get more attuned to the signals our bodies are sending us, so I know when to take breaks and look out the window for awhile.

As an adult I also know that it would horribly rude to retreat into my own private reading world while my wife Deirdre is driving, so instead of reading to myself, I read aloud. In years gone by, Deirdre and I would listen to audiobooks. Now I'm the audiobook!

Reading aloud is not unprecedented in our relationship. When Deirdre and I first began spending evenings together in her apartment, we tackled the recently published The Best American Short Stories of the Century (edited by John Updike and Katrina Kenison, Mariner Books, 2000), reading the 56 stories in order, just one per evening, alternating back and forth between reader and listener.

But the situation in the car is different. Deirdre is a much better driver than I am, and she can't read in the car at all, so our roles are fixed. I'm again riding shotgun just as when I was a kid, but now entertaining us both with read-aloud literature.

As I look at the list at the bottom of the Audio Books section in Deirdre's Reading List, some good memories come back: I started by reading aloud short stories, novellas, and short novels: some shorts by Anthony Trollope (great fun); The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (as well as a couple short stories by James, sometimes mangling the elaborate syntax); Three Years and My Life by Anton Chekhov (as well as a couple short stories, undoubtedly mangling the names); and Ann Beattie's Walks with Men.

Then came some actual full-length novels: Lady Chatterley's Lover (still startling in its language and a fascinating exploration into early 20th century English class conflicts); H. P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness (after I read that Guillermo del Toro was making a movie of it); Frankenstein (which I remember trying to read when much younger but never getting very far; this time we loved it); Trollope's An Eye for an Eye (nowhere close to his best but still quite interesting); and James' Daisy Miller, which coincided with a visit to our country house by my mother, so she got to hear it as well.

It is the Victorians whose prose I find easiest to read aloud. This should not be a surprise. In a very real sense, reading a Victorian novel aloud is reading it in the way that it was intended to be read. For many decades in the 19th century, families would sit together in the evenings, mostly in the dark, listening as someone under the only lamp read from the latest installment or published volume of a recent novel. This tradition is one reason why many novels of this era seem so reticent about sexual matters: They had to be suitable for the entire family. Periodicals and lending libraries functioned as gatekeepers to ensure that nothing came through that might potentially be embarassing when read aloud to children.

"Reading Aloud in Dickens' Novels" (an article in Oral Tradition by Tammy Ho Lai-ming) describes how the writing style of Charles Dickens was influenced by his knowledge that his novels would be read aloud. Dickens would often employ cues and markers for the reader, or write dialogue that strongly suggested the dramatic manner in which passages should be read. I'm certain that a similar case could be made for Austen and Thackeray and Trollope. (Once we get to George Eliot and George Meredith, however, we start to see more adult themes, and perhaps more of a private reading experience.)

In reading silently to oneself, inevitably some sentences and paragraphs get blurred. The eye might pick up a couple phrases and put them together, but then moves on. Reading to oneself requires focus and concentration. I suppose everyone has had the experience of reading a paragraph or page, and realizing that its meaning didn't come through because the mind had drifted.

When reading aloud, however, nothing gets blurred. Every word is equal. And while I won't claim that it's impossible for one's mind to drift when reading aloud — it's a very odd experience when it happens — it's certainly much less frequent, particularly if you're trying to put a little passion into the narrative, and convey the sense of the prose beyond the plain words.

What I like most about reading aloud is sharing the experience of the book with someone I love. This happens with commercial audiobooks as well, but there's something less intimate about hearing a stranger read. (An exception is when the author reads his or her own book.) Part of the experience of sharing the book involves interrupting the narrative for comments or even discussion. Pausing and resuming is easy with a live reader, but clumsier when the book is playing through the car's audio system. Car audio systems also make it almost impossible to bump back a sentence or two, or to re-read a particularly delicious passage.

Our latest project is our most ambitious read-aloud yet: The 230-odd thousand words of The Woman in White. Based on an unabridged commercial audiobook, this should require a total of about 28 hours to read aloud. I've been reading it using the Phree Book Reader application on my Windows Phone, so I can still keep going even when we're driving at night.

Neither Deirdre nor I have ever read any Wilkie Collins before, but we're enjoying The Woman in White immensely. It's a sheer joy to read aloud, and anyone who tries it will become convinced that Wilkie Collins wrote the novel specifically for this purpose. Whenever there's dialogue, it's usually quite obvious who is speaking. It's easy to differentiate the characters and only rarely will I stumble on awkward sentences. The Woman in White is one of the first Victorian "sensation novels," so drifting into a spooky or melodramatic voice is part of the fun.

We recently passed the half-way point in The Woman in White, and in the section we're in at the moment, I try to do a neutral but somewhat passionate voice for Marian (who is the diarist and hence narrator); a light airy voice for Laura; a very gruff and mean voice for Sir Percival; a mellifluous rhythm for Count Fosco — I don't do accents, and particularly not Italian accents — and cold and matter-of-fact for Fosco's wife. The servants get a vague working-class accent, either high or low depending on gender.

The Woman in White was published just over 150 years ago, first in installments in Charles Dickens' periodical All the Year Round and then in a common Victorian three-volume "triple-decker" book edition. Of course I've read other novels from this period, but by reading The Woman in White aloud, I feel much more of a connection with those original readers in 1859 and 1860 who also shared the novel in this way. Neither Deirdre nor I know the plot or what's going to happen, so in that respect the novel seems almost as new and as fresh to us as it certainly was to them.

By reading The Woman in White aloud, I feel part of an important literary and family tradition, and I can imagine myself occupying the same psychic space as those many others who read the book aloud with their families a long time ago, but with as much delight as I'm having now.