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Reading ... the Old Fashioned Way

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My parents often remind me that until I was ten, they read aloud to me at every meal but lunch. If they could have avoided going to work and I to school, I'm sure they would have read to me then as well. In this way, we devoured the entire Little House on the Prairie series, Treasure Island, Kidnapped, The Wind in the Willows, Never Cry Wolf, and James Thurber's dog stories to name just a few. I clearly remember my father crying as he read me the passage about the death of Fodder Wing in The Yearling.

Later on, I replaced my parents with books on tape. I wore out my cassettes of The Odyssey (a poem intended to be heard and not read) and my many recordings of the Sherlock Holmes stories.

With the recent publication of my first novel I've become the reader instead of the listener. I've had to discover how to give an audible voice to the characters who have spoken to me in the confines of my own mind for years. And I've had to discover new methods (usually the promise of free wine) of luring friends and strangers into a bookstore for an evening of listening.

When I began to write my novel, I did think about how I would have to transform myself from storyteller to performer by participating in what may seem like a relic from the pre-internet, even the pre-television world: the art of reading aloud. On my book tour, I have been cautioned repeatedly to read slowly and not for too long. Even the most patient readers these days can be impatient listeners.

I get it. Unlike characters in novels by Dickens and Austen, we are no longer accustomed to listening for an extended period of time. In a world where purchasing a book is all too rare, attending a reading can seem like a dreaded inconvenience. Bookstore owners often look to authors to pull in the crowds and throw up their hands at not being able to do so themselves.

Then too, competing factors such as weather and important sporting events -- the MLB playoffs do go on -- can make you feel as if you are on the losing end of a popularity contest. Even the most established authors have experienced the unwelcome shock of reading to an audience of two.

It would be disingenuous to deny that bookstore appearances are made primarily in the interest of sales. There is an unspoken contract between the reader and her listeners: I won't keep you too long; you will buy my book.

At times, I've felt a bit guilty about this transaction. But the more I've read aloud, the more I've begun to realize that the intimacy of sharing my writing aurally is a special way of inviting readers into the world of my novel. Even my best friends, who have known me for years say that listening to me read aloud gave them a greater understanding of what I'd written than simply reading my novel did.

We have grown distant from our words. Increasingly our books are not physical objects, but bits and bytes on screens. Reading aloud to a room full of listeners makes words tangible and gives them presence. It reminds us that language comes to us first through the ear and it emphasizes the value of each phrase and celebrates each pause. To get close to the heart of a book, listen to it read aloud by someone who loves it.

Most people who listen to books do so as a matter of convenience. We resort to the robotic voices of our Ipods, Kindles, and computers to read Pride and Prejudice or Glenn Beck's Arguing with Idiots -- both top sellers in the Kindle Store. But this does not submerge us in an author's world. It is an alienating experience in which tone and even subtext are sacrificed to expediency.

In a world increasingly dominated by social networking sites -- a boon to a first time author -- I have often been advised to "reach out" to my readers online and forget the book tour. While I love receiving emails from fans and friends (who wouldn't?), and plan on embarking on a virtual tour of bookblogs, nothing will replace the thrill of speaking, almost performing, my book for an audience.