Reading Aloud

Saturday September 25, 2021

This post contains spoilers for the short story The Husband Stitch by Carmen Maria Machado, which I highly recommend. I would suggest reading it before you read this post, if you intend to read it.


I’ve been reading The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader and the Imagination by Ursula K. Le Guin recently. In it, she speaks extensively about how her writing, and perhaps all writing, is meant to be spoken, rather than read. Thus, flow and rhythm are of utmost importance.

That’s interesting to me, since it’s at odds with how I tend to experience reading — while some poetic works clearly must be listened to, even if only in one’s mind, I tend to read prose without considering the sounds it makes.

In The Wave in the Mind, Le Guin makes a bold claim (admittedly somewhat offhandedly):

It is my strong belief, however, that all prose worth reading is worth reading aloud, and that the rhythms we catch clearly in reading aloud, we also catch unconsciously when reading in silence.

This got me thinking about works of literature that are difficult or impossible to read aloud. Carmen Maria Machado’s The Husband Stitch comes to mind as a somewhat ironic example — while it comes with instructions for how to read it aloud, those instructions are designed as a somewhat surreal literary device for the reader, and reading them aloud would strip them of much of their power.

The Last Samurai is another example of this — it makes use of different font sizes and layouts, Japanese characters and Greek letters, and other such devices that are tricky to do justice to into words.

Perhaps the most extreme example of this is House of Leaves, in which font color plays an important role, text is often rotated on the page, and the footnotes often have footnotes. I haven’t read much of it yet, but I picked up a copy yesterday and am excited to dig in.

I’m sure that considering rhythm and flow will make one a better writer, and perhaps a better reader, but I, for one, am glad the books exist that are immersive and inscrutable enough to be impossible to do justice to aloud.

changelog
: Initial post.
: Fix typo.
: Note that "The Husband Stitch" is a short story.