On Reading Aloud

Thrift stores are funny places for finding books — you often have to wade through a lot of rubbish before stumbling upon something worthwhile. At least, that’s been my experience. And while thrift stores are not my first pick for used books (small independent bookstores, library book sales, and the internet are those, for me), they do have their place in the book buying world. I often find something and, invariably, for a fraction of the cost.

And so the other evening, it happened that I was browsing for books at a local thrift store. I didn’t have anything particular in mind — I learned long ago to approach used book browsing as a kind of spiritual experience, in which you must surrender your will to whatever books are waiting for you, specifically, that day.

It was a particularly busy night, the store curiously full of customers piling their carts high. (When I walked in, there were no carts left.) Shelf upon shelf of upright books I quickly scanned and discarded, as I wove my way through people coming the other direction, the only spines popping out a few titles I already owned.  And then, in the children’s book section (a mass of chaos, more gone over than any other), my eyes rested upon a familiar title: Luke Baldwin’s Vow, by Morley Callaghan.

This writer’s name was vaguely familiar to me, known more by reputation than by anything else, though in a limited way, as I don’t know if Callaghan is read outside of Canada anymore, as he was when publishing his short stories.

And I’d picked up his memoir, That Summer in Paris, a few months back, in which he writes about having spent a season with some of the great writers of the day: Hemingway, Pound, Stein, Fitzgerald, and Joyce (no need for first names to identify these heavyweights). Yes, he ran with or, — as famously remembered — boxed with that set.

But I’d never connected this internationally-known Canadian writer with being the author of this children’s book. Luke Baldwin’s Vow itself had a familiar ring to it I couldn’t place, something beckoning to me about it, urging me to pick it up. On the front cover, a boy and his dog in a boat. I opened to its title page. Names of the book’s previous owners appeared in neat handwriting on the top corner, one beneath the other:

Angela I—-

Michael O’C——–

Daisy L—-

Chris M.

Sarah H.

More likely, these were the names of students, each borrowing this copy of a book which a teacher assigned her class each year. And it was then I knew why the book had such a pull on me: I’d read it before. Or rather, it had been read aloud to me by my grade 7 elementary school teacher, Mr. Ryan.

I’ve a few scant, but vivid, memories of Mr. Ryan — the way the edges of his mouth twitched when he was amused by something one of us said or did, or the way his entire head went red when angry, his calm demeanor returning quickly as the blood drained from his face.

But most of all, what I remember about Mr. Ryan was that he read to us, aloud, each day, after lunch. I don’t recall now for how long (was it ten minutes? twenty?), or if it was indeed every day (seems like a tremendous amount of time to have dedicated to this, with a curriculum). But it felt like every day, and the after lunch part seems right, too — I was always ready to listen, like I would be after running around outside for noon hour.

Where the Red Fern Grows (Wilson Rawls), The Avion My Uncle Flew (Cyrus Fisher), My Side of the Mountain (Jean Craighead George) — these were all books I remember Mr.  Ryan reading to us, a few minutes at a time, over the school year.

I don’t remember enjoying them much at the time; or rather, they would not have been my first pick (they all have male protagonists, I realize now), and perhaps I was feeling cheated for not having maximum reading time of my own choice. But now, I am grateful, and realize the power of reading out loud. It sticks in the memory.

The only other reading memory I have at that school was in grade 6, crying while reading L.M. Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside, when Mr. Barrington asked me, alarmed,  what was wrong, and I (spoiler alert) blurted out “Walter died!” I’d sensed my teacher’s bewilderment (embarrassment?) when he sent me to the washroom to dry my tears, this sensitive girl-child who cried over a book.

Did we cry openly in Mr. Ryan’s class, I wonder now, when Old Dan died in Where the Red Fern Grows? I can’t recall, but I suspect we did, or could have. I seem to have a dim image of Mr. Ryan’s own eyes welling up while he read. But this may only be a trick of my memory.

Strangely, in fact, I don’t have a recollection of Mr. Ryan reading Luke Baldwin’s Vow aloud to us. But I don’t know how else I would have acquired this connection to it. Over the years, I’ve seen copies of the other books Mr. Ryan read to us, and felt that same instinctual yearning for them. I’d never purchased any of them, though.

But I tucked Luke Baldwin’s Vow under my arm anyhow, and headed for the cash register. The line snaked around and back again (there was apparently a 50% off sale that night), and as I’d left my current book in the car, I began reading Luke Baldwin’s Vow instead, leaning over the cart I’d found abandoned near the cash, while the shoppers surrounding me complained about the wait in line.

I didn’t entertain them that night with the story I was reading — it hadn’t crossed my mind to read it aloud. But maybe I should have, and made a memorable 50%-off-night for my many fellow-shoppers, enough to fill a classroom — as I stood in line for twenty minutes and read out loud, instead of quietly to myself.

Question: What role has reading aloud played in your life?