Monday, June 28, 2010

For Reading Out Loud

"Reading your own material aloud forces you to listen."
~ Stephen Ambrose

On a sweltering New York City night last week, two friends and I sat in folding chairs in Washington Square Park in front of a statue of a man named Alexander Lyman Holley, whose statue-worthy achievements seem a little thin to me. We were there for an event sponsored by the Mr. Beller's Neighborhood* website on the occasion of its tenth anniversary. It was part of this year's Park-Lit series of outdoor readings.

Mr. Beller's, which is named for its founder, writer Thomas Beller, publishes true stories about New York City. Most are interesting and some are a good deal more than that. Some are written by surprisingly well-known authors. (For many writers, the urge to publish is strong, even when the pay is nil.) For the reading, Mr. Beller assembled seven contributors. Phillip Lopate, Hal Sirowitz and Said Sayrafiezadeh are reasonably well known; three others — Abigail Frankfurt, Daniel Meneker and Christine Nieland — are probably best known to fans of Mr. Beller's Neighborhood. The seventh storyteller was Thomas Beller himself.

Phillip Lopate is a writer I greatly enjoy. As I listened to him I was struck anew by the importance of listening to stories and poetry — preferably through the voice of its author. Why is reading aloud a pleasure we normally restrict to parents and children?

While some of the authors read stories, Lopate chose to read poems, including the wonderful "The Last Slow Days of Summer"; written in the despair of the 1970s, when New York was crime-ravaged and broke, the poem came alive and revealed itself to be far more sardonically hilarious than it appears on the page. He did not read his laugh-out-loud funny poem We Who Are Your Closest Friends, which begins...

we who are
your closest friends
feel the time
has come to tell you
that every Thursday
we have been meeting
as a group
to devise ways
to keep you
in perpetual uncertainty

Click here to read the rest of it — preferably out loud.

One of my favorite places to listen to stories is the Moth, an organization that encourages people to stand up in front of an audience and tell a tale. Everyone is welcome; the only stipulations are no notes and stay within the five-minute time limit. I have heard stories at Moth events that will stay with me forever. Lucky for you, the Moth has put podcasts of some of its best stories on its website. One of my all-time favorites is there — Alan Rabinowitz's gripping and emotional "Man and Beast."

The Internet also offers excellent places to hear poetry. A good place to start is PBS, which has assembled an archive of readings by some of the world's greatest living poets; go here to listen.

* * *
*Full disclosure: One of my own New York stories occupies a small walk-up on side street of Mr. Beller's Neighborhood. Other than disguising the names of the people involved, I tried to tell my tale as accurately as I could. Nevertheless, a few months ago I received an angry e-mail from one of the disguised names; she was incensed at my recollection of a particular incident in the story and insisted I was wrong. Did I mention this was the first time this former friend had contacted me in at least 30 years? I didn't respond, but if I had, I would have quoted this passage from neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer's book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist:

"The uncomfortable reality is that we remember in the same way that Proust wrote. As long as we have memories to recall, the margins of those memories are being modified to fit what we know now. Synapses are crossed out...and the memorized moment that feels so honest is thoroughly revised."


  1. What a great description of Lopate reading. And how true. I was always amazed when I read at how much the audience would laugh at lines that I thought just ran in with another.

    It's also clear just how much you love the stories of your city. That's a great passion.

    Thank for the good guidance in the post.

  2. Thank you. That old line about "eight million stories in the naked city" really didn't go far enough. I'm sure there are tens of millions, and countless ways to tell them.

  3. I love so many things about this post—not least your own gripping story on Mr. Beller's Neighborhood, and your long-ago friend's outrage when your memory refuses to align with hers. (J.K. Rowling used the concept of altered memories in one of the Harry Potter books, to rather brilliant effect.)

    And I so agree about reading out loud; Stan and I mention this when we talk to schoolkids about writing—that reading your own rough draft aloud can help you hear where you may have gone off track.

    Thank you for a great, chewable post!

  4. Thank you so much, Susan. Reading aloud seems to be something that resonates with a lot of people.

    I'm ashamed to admit I haven't read a single Harry Potter book yet. They are so dauntingly huge. But people whose opinions I respect a lot, such as you, love them. So I must!

  5. Reading out loud is one of life's great pleasures. My best friend and I are known to contrive long car rides so that she can drive and I can read Wodehouse's Jeeves & Wooster stories out loud. I love the musicality of his language.

    My son outgrew our reading to him a long time ago, but the Harry Potter Stories were among our favorite read aloud books. I miss those days!

  6. Thanks, Wendy. Something in what you wrote reminded me that when I was a child, listening to my dad read "The Night Before Christmas" aloud was a beloved tradition; I continued it with the next generation in my household. I think we should all look for opportunities to do more of it.