Monday, October 21, 2013

Read to Each Other

I can be anything;
Take a look,
It's in a book:
A Reading Rainbow.
—"Reading Rainbow Theme," Tina Fabrique

It's almost Halloween again, when kids go trick-or-treating, adults get drunk and go to costume parties (I assume?), and my friends and I gather to read aloud to each other. I've already written here about this odd household Halloween tradition of mine, so I thought instead that I would take some time to write about my more general experience with the joys of reading aloud.

I have been read aloud to* for as long as I can remember. Like any two-year-old with an ounce of sense, I was obsessed with Goodnight Moon and insisted that it be read to me on an extremely regular basis. I also loved Are You My Mother? with a burning passion and, if what you needed was to make three- to six-year-old me laugh till I couldn't breathe, all you needed to do was read me the climax in which the baby bird realizes that a steam shovel is not its mother.** And when my kindergarten teacher introduced the class to The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, I thought it was the most amazing thing on God's green earth.

But more than these early favorites, what really ignited my love of reading aloud was my father's practice of reading to me and my sister every night before bed, starting when we were in 4th or 5th grade or so. He began with the Chronicles of Narnia and then moved on to A Wrinkle in Time and The Hobbit. When his mother expressed concern that in reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone his children might become enamored of witchcraft and sorcery, Dad reassured her by saying that he would read it (and, as it turned out, its sequels) to us to make sure we didn't get any weird ideas. Dad was fantastic at this stuff; he created different voices and personas for the characters, adopting as many distinct accents and tones of voice as he could to create the impression that we were really encountering the different people in the pages of the books he read to us. (Dad's interpretation of Hagrid is still my preferred one.)

In college, I learned that it was, in fact, possible for adults to read things to other adults for fun, when a friend invited a group of us over for a reading of Faust during my first year of school. We read by candle light and delighted in the darkness of the story and the oddity of what we were doing. That night was born both the idea for the Library of Babel podcast that I created and ran thoughout college (named for the first story I read, for which this blog was also eventually named) and for the annual Halloween story nights I would start a year or two later. (I wanted to do a radio show on the college radio station, but they didn't have room for me until much later in my colege career; the podcast was created in the meantime as a balm for my frustrated soul.)

The greatest joy of creating the podcast was in learning to inhabit different characters and animate a story on my own, overlaying the more basic pleasure of having created a thing for its own sake, that is, not an assignment or requirement but a personal project, an accomplishment. It was a good thing. I may return to it someday.

Me, reading to an audience at Story Lab

The most recent project in this vein has been even better, though, in its way: learning to tell others my own stories. In truth, it has been a joy just to know I have some exciting and fun things to say, which is still a fairly new thing. I have not sought out adventure in my life often, so it's taken a while to build up a collection of things to tell others about. But more than that, it has been a joy to share, to try and delight and entertain and inform others with the facts of my life.

This communal element, this sharing, is the best reason for people to read to each other. Sometimes we run out of things to say, out of reasons to be together, out of ways of connecting. I think reading aloud, whether our own stories or someone else's, can help us fill in the gaps, strengthen the bonds, and enrich the spaces between us. I encourage you to give it a try sometime. Perhaps you can go, right now, find a friend, and read a short story or a poem together, maybe something by Roald Dahl (this, perhaps?). Or find a couple friends, and get together to read a book (how about The Giver? It's a classic, an easy read, and good for talking about afterward.) Or maybe sit down in front of a computer, record yourself reading something, and just send it to somebody. Read to each other, is what I'm trying to say. Read to each other.

*Side note: I once came across a contest to end a sentence as many prepositions as possible. The winning entry was a sentence in which a child asks his father why he brought the wrong book up to his bedroom: "What did you bring the book I didn't want to be read to out of up for?"
**Your other option was showing me a VHS of Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day, particularly the part when Piglet is trying to fly a kite but nearly gets blown into the sky by the heavy winds. But I digress.

Photo sources:
3. Nate Irvine  

Monday, October 14, 2013

In Defense of Boring Movies: The New World

Part of a series of essays In Defense of Boring Movies.

A whole new world,
A new fantastic point of view,
No one to tell us no, 

or where to go,
Or say we're only dreaming.

—"A Whole New World," from Disney's Aladdin

Savages, savages!
Barely even human...

They're not like you and me
Which means they must be evil!
—"Savages," from Disney's Pocahontas

I think of myself as a Terrence Malick fan, even though I've only seen two of his movies. He hasn't even made that many movies—so far, he's been the writer/director on just seven in a four-decade career—so it's not like I couldn't get through his body of work in a week or two if I wanted to.

The thing about Terrence Malick is that his movies are the absolute height of what I've come to call the "boring" movie: movies that ask big questions and give the viewer space to think about them. They tend to have lots of long, dialogue-free shots that just let you think and see and feel, rather than propelling you quickly through a plot.

It takes some actual work to enjoy this style of movie, of which Terrence Malick is currently the king. His movies tend to stretch to 3+ hours, and from the first moments watching The New World, I was totally absorbed, and I stayed that way through the whole length. So even seeing just one of his films made me feel like I already knew him and his body of work well enough to know I was a fan. The second one was just gravy, really.

The plot of The New World is this: it's the story of John Smith and Pocahontas. You know that story? Good. Then you know the plot. Like with any boring movie, the plot in The New World is not really that important.

Terrence Malick is interested in the universe and nature and how people relate to 'em, these forces that are bigger and wilder than us. In The New World, he's specifically concerned with the way white people came to America and interacted with the vast array of nature on display here, as well as how they interacted with the Native Americans, who seemed to have a much different relationship with nature.

Boring movies ask big questions and give you space to think about them, but just what that space looks like is of course variable. Where Stalker and Dead Man are content to have the viewer watch the characters silently make their way through the wilderness, The New World lingers heavily over nature, to the extent that the filmmakers had an entire second film crew dedicated to filming wildlife scenes.

The big questions in The New World are these: America was a beautiful country once; how did we manage to muck it up so much, and why? What happened between the new settlers and the original inhabitants, and could it ever have been different?

The New World is a huge movie full of big ideas and questions and events, but it gives you so much room to breathe that watching it feels like a slow, gentle walk instead of a headlong dash through plot and pondering. The New World is a great example of a movie that's "boring" in all the right ways.

Photo Source: (fair use)
Clips are from the Extended Cut of this film. 

Monday, October 7, 2013

Nostalgia For Things That Are Not Gone

Part of a series of Live Story Recordings.

Art by my friend Alex

This is a story that I told at some friends' apartment in Chicago last week. They host a monthly arts showcase event there called The Workshop. If you'd like to know more about it, email them at and ask. They host all kinds of art, from movies, to poetry, to dance, to whatever you care to share with a group of friendly people. It's really cool!

This story is about this feeling that I don't really know if anybody else really has, but basically, it's when you really miss something that you could have if you really wanted it, but it's pretty much not worth the effort required to track it down again. I'm calling this feeling "nostalgia for things that are not gone." When I shared the story on Friday, I hadn't come up with a title, but I think that works well enough.