Sunday, June 22, 2014

18 Years of Books

I met my wife in January of 1995 when she walked into CafĂ© Jones, the coffee shop where I was the late-shift barista. It was well below freezing that night in Billings, Montana and the shop had been empty for an hour or two. I was getting ready to close up early when I heard the door open and looked up to see two women come in, cacooned in layers of cotton and wool. My reaction was NOT love at first sight. In fact it was much more of a feeling of annoyance. Instead of getting to shut down early and go home, now I was going to have to stay for a while and dirty up the espresso machine I had just made sparkle.  Even worse was the possibility these two women might want food, which would cause even more mess in the now-spotless food prep area.

But then, as the two women removed hats and gloves and coats and claimed a table for themselves, something about one of them caught my eye.

Less than 4 months later, we were talking about getting married.

Today marks 18 years since we said our vows and drove away from the church in Grandma Nita’s mint green Ford. This post is a simple “Happy Anniversary” to the love of my life, Erica.

It is impossible to sum up 18 years of marriage, so I am not going to even try. Instead, I want to write about one thing that we have done since before we were even married. It is something we have done alone together in bed, in a car and on trains and planes and boats, on mountainsides in Montana and in quiet parks in Connecticut. We have even used a computer to do it a few times while one of us was traveling. It gives us both great pleasure.



Of course, I am talking about our tradition of reading out loud to each other. Ever since the spring of 1995, Erica and I have always had an out-loud book going. We generally alternate who chooses the book and we also switch off who reads and who listens. I have a very clear memory of Erica reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams in the back seat of her parents’ car as her father drove to Miles City, Montana—heading for my first exposure to the craziness that is Easter with Erica’s enormous extended family. As the main characters headed inevitably for a sex scene, Erica blushed a bit to be reading those words within earshot of her parents and we put the book aside.

In the years since, we have read some truly great books this way.  A few that stand out are Oscar and Lucinda, Possession, The Fool’s Progress, The Shipping News, The English Patient, Winter’s Tale, and the entire Harry Potter series. Occasionally, we will start a book that is unfinishable. A few in this category were Accordian Crimes and Freedom. To be a good out-loud book, a book must be good, (of course), but simply being good is no guarantee that a book will make for an enjoyable listening experience. Writers like Philip Roth have sentences that are too long and it is easy to lose the thread if his words are not on the page in front of you.

The best out-loud books have a strong story with characters who are easily differentiated. Extended meditations on anything, especially those with many parenthetical asides and tangents, make it hard to listen. A pet peeve of mine that has developed over the years is when an author will give a character a line of dialogue and then, AFTER the line is spoken, add a descriptor like “he said in a whisper.” When I am reading the book out loud it would be helpful to know the line is delivered in a whisper BEFORE I read it at full volume.

As it has become easier to watch excellent tv shows on demand on the Internet, our out-loud book tradition has taken a hit, but we are both committed to getting it back to its rightful place in our marriage. There is something intimate about reading a shared book to another person—most of us already know that from being kids and having a story read by a parent or older sibling. Anyone with kids knows how special it can be to curl up on the couch with a child and a book and create a world for a little while.

Our out-loud books helped Erica and me create a bubble around ourselves while we were on our honeymoon, camping all around Portugal and reading a non-fiction book about Christopher Columbus and the Age of Explorers. It has been true ever since. When she was pregnant with Isabel and we were preparing a bedroom for our new-baby-to-be, we were reading the first Harry Potter books out loud. Erica painted some Winnie-the-Pooh characters on the walls of Isabel’s room and as she did, I sat on the futon and read all about the Boy Who Survived and He Who Shall Not Be Named.

On long drives out West and in heavy traffic back East, the hours are so much more enjoyable with Erica reading a good book out loud. I remember hearing one of Carl Hiaasen’s very funny novels while driving from the Florida Keys up to airport in Miami for an early morning flight. It is a way to share something at the end of a busy day, a way to have something to say to each other even if we are not feeling especially connected, and a way to be close. Sometimes it is a way for us both turn our minds off and forget about something stressful so that we can fall asleep.

I can’t say exactly how many books we have made it through in this way, but it must be well over 100 by now—probably far more. I don’t normally give marriage advice. Every marriage is its own thing and to presume to know anything about what two other people should do in their marriage is crazy. (I have a hard enough time knowing what I should be doing in my own).  But I will give this one piece of advice and you are free to take it or leave it: pick a book and read it out loud with your partner before this summer is over.  Just give it a try and see if you like it. I think you might.


I joked with Erica last night that our 18 years of marriage have given me 15 or 16 of the best years of my life. Truly, each of the 18 has been a gift. Erica, you make my life interesting and challenging and exciting and I cannot wait to see where we go from here.  Our out-loud book is just one of the many things that makes life with you so good. Happy Anniversary, habibi.

3 comments:

  1. After having read your comment in the NY Times - in reference to the article about reading to children - I decided to check out your blog! I am slowly working my way through your many posts, and am enjoying what I see.

    I was left to raise 3 children alone - now 32, 24, and 22 years old - and I read to them constantly when they were little; I bought so many books for them over the years, that I have had floor-to-ceiling bookshelves built in several rooms in my house in order to accomodate 32 years worth of books! I refused to buy my children video games and consoles, TV was limited to their favorite programs on PBS, and they were only allowed an hour each day on the computer, besides whatever work was required for school. All of my children were diagnosed with learning differences, including ADHD, but they did not receive any medication until they were in college; they were all A students, and I would say that the only drawback to their constant reading was that their books were not waterproof and could not be taken into the shower!

    I realize that this is a lengthy (!) comment, but I have 2 anecdotes to share with you: When my children were going to school, I constantly ran into parents who gave their children money for having earned As on their report cards. One day I was approached by a parent who asked me how much money I gave to my children for report cards with all As; I replied that I did not beleive in rewarding an A with money. Instead, my children were promised a trip to the bookstore to pick out a new book - which they enjoyed immensely (!) - and I left that mother speechless with my reply! On another occasion, my son Chris - who was in high school at the time - was approached by a fellow student who began to talk about various TV programs he had been following. He kept trying to converse with Chris about the many twists and turns the plots had taken on the shows that he had been watching. Chris had to keep saying that he was completely unfamiliar with the TV programs because he never watched them. In exasperation, the classmate finally said to Chris; "What do you DO in your free time if you don't watch the television? And Chris's reply: "I read...!"

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  2. Nancy,

    Thank you so much for taking the time to come and check out some of my posts. Sounds like you have done a great job of raising readers. Do any of them have children now? If so, do you get to read to your grandkids?

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  3. I asked my husband to read to me last night and it felt good. I was drowsy but wanted to engage & he was reading a book that had been given to me that I still haven't got my hand on yet so it all made sense :)
    My brother & sister-in-law used to read to each other too, before he passed away, and they used to recommend it. 10 years as a parent and I'm finally getting books read to me by another adult. I love hearing my kids read and our youngest who started school this year LOVES reading to anyone who will listen, our eldest has just started reading aloud to us again, she has read to her siblings ever since she could. We visit the library a lot and like Nancy bookshop visits are great treats.

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