The Virtue of Voices

My iPad told me it is World Book Night tonight, and Emily Temple on Flavorwire thinks it would be nice if everyone read a book to someone else, instead of to themselves. As an exuberant fan of the spoken tale, I really couldn’t help sharing my own thoughts on this, which is that it’s pretty great. One could argue a spoken story is like the best conversation in the world: you get to say your piece, and everyone actually listens to you.

I remember so very, very fondly the stories and tales I would hear in bed every night from my father growing up. Often it would be a book; Curious George, and then Shel Silverstein, and then The Famous Five. My father had a wonderful, even-paced baritone, his skewed northern accent a lilting lullaby to my young ears (before you get too worked up, not all my memories of you are fond, dad!).

My mother read to me when I was older; Great Expectations was our treat together, and though I often didn’t understand all the words, Dickens’ imagery through her voice simply flowed through me, and I saw every detail of Satis, the house where Miss Havisham lived pent up for so many years (yes…that’s where my blog handle comes from).

Even my older sister, one camping trip in the Italian Dolomites, read me a story which I had forgotten the name of; a magical tale of wishes that came true, and the lessons the children learned from this. I particularly remember the divining rod that found the stream, and how the water that gushed out flooded the farm. I only just now, decades later, rediscovered what it was: The Wish Giver, by Bill Brittain. I thought I had lost this book forever, but its memory – from a single, spoken telling – has stayed with me ever since.

The thing that was missing, though, from many of these tellings, were the voices. Certainly, my mother would get quite excited, and Magwitch got quite a growl to him. I always knew when a character was speaking when my father read to me, but not always which character. There was an exception to this, however, and this was when my father would invent a story. This happened rarely, but was magic when it did: a Story With No-No Book. These were the dark tales, and the grim, and quite suddenly, when the words of the page were no longer there, the voices were all that was left, and it was thrilling. Often these stories would be mysterious, and more than any written book I would be terrified, not daring to know what was going to happen to the hero, who always seemed oddly to share my own name.

And now, of course, I am reading to my own son. Sometimes we share a Story with No-No Book. More often we are reading from a real book (or an eBook). And what I remember from my own childhood has stayed with me: the voices are everything. The narrator may tell the tale, but the characters make it. The Secret Garden was full of (terrible) Yorkshire accents. Treasure Island was full of pirates who sounded just like Robert Newton (except for Squire Trelawney, who sounded like something out of Little Britain). Gandalf was unashamedly my impression of Ian McKellen. It gets to the point where my son not only knows who is speaking when, but will actually call me out if my accent slips even a bit (you try keeping Harry, Ron and Hermione’s voices all distinct).

Even so, with all these wonderful voices (and mind you, it gets pretty difficult to remember what an Ent sounds like a book and a half later), sometimes there’s one character, here or there, that really steps beyond the page and truly, truly comes to life. I’ve only done this a few times myself; the Witch-King of Angmar was so sepulchral and creepy I gave myself shivers as I read his lines. Reeta Skeeter, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, somehow came out with a wonderful lisp, at once sugary and sinister.

Not all voices come out well, of course. Sometimes I’ve had to change a voice halfway through the book, realizing it didn’t fit the character (or that my poor throat couldn’t handle quite that much gargling). Sometimes I just can’t remember what someone is supposed to sound like. Willy Wonka was great in the Chocolate Factory, but somehow went all wrong in the Great Glass Elevator. I attribute it to his being in space for too long.

So what is the upshot of all this? Nothing really…just to say that, if you are going to read to someone aloud, get the voices. It’s all about the voices. Dig deep in your mind, or pull from the latest movie version, but give those characters the life they deserve. Hell – read aloud to yourself! Go on – read the next chapter of whatever book is in your hand aloud. I can guarantee you two things: you won’t miss a word of the story, and your characters will quite suddenly become more alive than they ever had been before.

What are your favorite memories of reading and being read to?

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3 thoughts on “The Virtue of Voices

  1. Oh wow, I have always lived in my head, and always read to myself. Beanie shared her favorite books and poetry, but in book form. What I DO love, however, is her handwriting on the flyleaf of my favorite childhood poetry book, listing her favorite poems inside.

    • There’s something magical about a book that’s been marked by a friend or a loved one…it becomes not just a book, but an heirloom, a priceless piece of family history. I’ll miss that, twenty years hence, when pixels have replaced paper.

  2. Yeah. I just send that poetry book to California with my daughter. It will live with her now. It was great to pass it on, because I know she loves the book as much as I do.

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