Recently, a younger single friend asked me what factor contributed to my forty- five-year marriage. What might she do to make a happy marriage?
Without hesitation I stated, “Read aloud to each other.”
I suspect she had expected something more profound as her jaw dropped and she stared at me dumbfounded. Now I don’t guarantee that reading aloud will save marriages that are on the rocks or make up for money problems but it will enhance intimacy and camaraderie, not to mention improve your vocabulary. It is a good way to be together without having to think up things to talk about or worse, talk about things that bore your partner. It is a form of play and sharing.
So, where’s a good place to start?
Short stories are good to read out loud. And even the longer essays or novels written by authors with a strong, individualistic, personal narrative voices are your best bet for a good listening experience. J.D. Salinger ‘s The Catcher in the Rye was the first book my husband and I shared and the intimate pleasure of bringing Holden Caulfield into our lives for an hour’s reading was something we each looked forward to in those early innocent years before a child and our careers took over.
What a delight to find a character that thought and felt the way we did. Holden voiced his irreverence in a fresh, off-hand slang. He became a sort of instant best friend to his sympathetic audience, some one that also saw through the oppressive conformity of Cold War American society. Salinger’s hero’s ‘attitude’ shows in his opening paragraph.
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They‘re quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father. They are nice and all— I’m not saying that—but they’re also touchy as hell. Besides, I’m not going to tell my whole goddamn autobiography or anything. I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come here and take it easy.”
As I read this in 2012, I am struck by how quaint and rather innocent sounding Holden now seems. There is no heavy-duty profanity, no political axe to grind. Mostly, Holden doesn’t like the phonies, snobs or bullies at his prep school. His favorite person in the whole world is his kid sister, Phoebe. The word ‘lousy‘ seems dated and ‘madman stuff’ brings to mind a currently popular television series about advertising men set in the 1960’s, the same time period of the novel. There is a hint that something emotionally or mentally bad has occurred when Holden tells us he has had to “come here and take it easy”. “Oh my,” thinks the reader and turns the page to see what happens next to the young chip on his shoulder narrator.
It was the narrator’s personal confessional voice that kept us glued to our chair and turning the pages. Holden Caulfield wasn’t just a fictional character; he became an icon for rebellion. He felt very real.
The opposite feeling occurred when I listened to my husband read When You are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris. This collection of personal essays about the author’s experiences is laugh- out-loud funny and perfect for a shared reading. But I wonder if things happened exactly as he described. This is from “It’s Catching”.
“My friend Patsy was telling me a story. “So I’m at the movie theater” she said, “and I’ve got my coat all neatly laid out against the back of my seat, when this guy comes along-“ And here I stopped her, because I’ve always wondered about this coat business. When I’m in a theater, I either fold mine in my lap or throw it over the armrest, but Patsy always spreads hers out. Acting as if the seat back was cold, and she couldn’t possibly enjoy herself while it was suffering.
“Why do you do that?” I asked. And she looked at me saying, “Germs silly. Think of all the people who have rested their heads there. Doesn’t it just give you the creeps?” I admitted that it had never occurred to me. “Well you would never lie on a hotel bedspread. Would you?” She asked, and again: Why not? I might not put it in my mouth, but to lie back and make a few phone calls — I do it all the time.
“But you wash the phone first, right?”
“ Umm, no.”
“Well, that is just …dangerous,” she said.”
Is there a rampant fear of germs taking over the western world or is this based on an episode of Seinfeld circa 1990. The germ thing is catching on. Nearly everyone carries sanitized towelettes now.
David Sedaris, like Holden Caulfield, is telling us, the readers, about his ordinary middle-class life. The specific issues are rather unimportant except that some actually do come up in real conversations.
I suspect we all have a Patsy in our circle of friends. The world has changed but people remain weird — only in socially different ways than in Holden’s time. Last week one of my dinner guests asked me if my husband and I had been de–wormed. This question was posed as I was lifting a forkful of lemon meringue pie to my mouth. I lowered my fork cautiously and replied…
“My entire family is taking de-worming herbs. You should too.”
A David Sedaris moment taking place in my own life.
For me David Sedaris is a postmodern actualized Holden Caulfield. He’s political too; he has done more for gay rights by writing about his relationship with his long-term partner, Hugh, and their life together as well as his large Greek family, than hundreds of activists ever could. He is outrageous, even caustic, but always a forthright funny observer of contemporary life. Humorous writers are rather rare. Sedaris has been compared to Mark Twain, E.B. White and James Thurber, but I prefer to believe that he is the fictional Holden Caulfield all grown up, gay and living in Normandy, and still nice to his sister, Amy.
Several reviewers have called him a “Hey, Martha! Writer” because after you read a few pages you feel like calling someone and saying, “Hey listen to this guy,” and launch into reading out loud.