One of the delights in writing a personal column is that readers frequently are inspired to share a bit of their private lives too, especially when our tastes seem to coincide.
When I casually mentioned that during our power blackout my wife and I had taken turns reading aloud to each other, by flashlight, from Russell Baker's autobiography, I got a ton of mail from couples saying that (a) they'd been reading aloud to each other for years, and (b) Baker's "Growing Up" was just about the most pleasure-giving book they'd read.
"Marx claimed religion was the opiate of the people, but nowadays it's watching TV," one reader commented. "You can sit there side by side with your wife or whoever, and before you know it you've each slipped into your private, passive little reverie.
"But when you read something really good aloud to each other, you're investing yourself, reaching out, sharing the moment actively, touching each other because you're waiting for the other's reaction. The whole process takes a lot of time--you have time to reflect on what you are reading or hearing."
Savoring With the Tongue Marion and I are only about a third of the way through "Growing Up." Almost every page deserves to be savored on the tongue as well as through the eye. For example, here's young Russell, about age 9, just discovering the B & O Railroad's Main Line:
"If the crossing gate was down, you might be treated to the incredible spectacle of a passenger express highballing toward glory, the engineer waving down at you from the cab window, sparks flying, cinders scattering, the glistening pistons pumping with terrifying power. And behind this hellish monstrosity throbbing with fire and steam, a glimpse of the passengers' faces stately and remote as kings as they roared by in a gale of wind powerful enough to knock you almost off your feet."
Anybody who wanted to pretend he was Richard Burton could really lean into passages like that. We've also liked William Gibson's work: the plays, "The Miracle Worker" and "Two for the Seesaw," and nonfiction such as "A Mass for the Dead." Come to think of it, that too was a book about growing up.
We were fascinated by some of Simone de Beauvoir's memoirs, especially what she and Sartre were thinking and doing in Paris during the Nazi occupation. And we had become so fond of William Wharton's novel, "Dad," that we airmailed a copy to two dear friends boldly traversing the South Pacific in a 40-foot sailboat.
The passage to Tahiti took them nearly three weeks--entirely alone on a glassy sea, reading this book to each other. They got in such a fight over it that they almost divorced.
Changing the Mood A few of James Thurber's stories are completely mood-reversing for me when I'm down--"The Night the Bed Fell on Father" and "The Dog That Bit People," for example. And every now and then we made a pass at poetry, most recently E. E. Cummings, who used to live just a block from us in Greenwich Village. But we've moved.
Several readers warned us not to go too highbrow in reading aloud, and they were right. Can you believe that once we actually tackled James Joyce's "Ulysses"? Marion had heard a blind woman read the book aloud from Braille years earlier, and had almost wept with the beauty of it, she said.
I tried--I really did. If anybody could make my wife weep it ought to be me. Somehow, though, nothing worked. Among all those convoluted thoughts and words my eye began to search for an old familiar phrase known as cruel and unusual punishment.
I don't know how long I read--Joycean minutes are longer than most. But at last I looked up in desperation. "Listen," I said, "I have here in my hand a TV Guide. How would you like me to read--sonorously--the capsule description for one of our favorite idiot TV programs?"
She sighed, deeply--but she didn't say no.
Jim Sanderson welcomes comments from readers; please enclose a stamped self-addressed envelope if you wish a reply. Write him in care of Sun Features Inc., Box 45, Cardiff, Calif. 92007.