When I was my twenties, I traveled with a good friend to Switzerland to visit another dear friend, who was living and working in Geneva at the time. We wandered the city, stopping for pastries in every coffeeshop we passed. We took the train high up into the Alps and hiked through the breathtaking countryside. But what I remember most about that trip isn’t any of that— it’s the night the three of us stayed up all night, sitting on the bed in my friend’s tiny apartment, reading The Old Man and the Sea out loud.
It was a magical night. We passed the book—an old paperback of mine—back and forth between us, letting the words flow over and around us. I remember at one point we looked at the clock and saw how late it was. “Should we stop?” one of us wondered. We didn’t stop. There was something spellbinding about the act of reading that spare, haunting, graceful book to each other. The story held us captive. When we finished, at 4am, we lay there in the pre-dawn light, listening to the sounds of the city coming to life. I felt the book as a presence between us: the old man, the boy, the fish. I still count that night among one of the best literary experiences of my life.
As adults, we rarely allow ourselves to read out loud to each other. We tend to think of reading aloud as something we do for someone—our kids, our students, the kids we babysit—rather than something we do with someone. Reading out loud is something we grow out of. We look back on it with fondness, but we don’t indulge.
But reading books out loud as adult is not like being read to as a kid. Passing a book back and forth, pausing after a particularly beautiful or heartbreaking scene to discuss it—these things are a form of intimacy. It’s a deeply connective experience to read a book out loud with another human being you care about.
So here are ten books to read out loud as an adult. My criteria for good read-aloud books is subjective, but in general, most of these books aren’t long or dense. They have riveting prose. While I was reading them, I craved having someone to share the experience with.
But if none of these books are your cup of tea, it doesn’t matter. Pick a book you love and find someone in your life to read it aloud with. I hope it’ll bring you as much pleasure as it’s brought me.
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacquline Woodson
No read-aloud list would be complete without poetry. Woodson’s poetic memoir about growing up a black girl in South Carolina and New York City is moving, gorgeous, and lush. Her evocative prose begs to be read aloud. Each poem is its own little story, but the book as a whole is something remarkable–brimming with love, wonder, sorrow, and the joyful discovery of the power of your own voice.
Insomniac City by Bill Hayes
This funny, heartbreaking, achingly smart and tender memoir about Hayes’s relationship with Oliver Sacks in the last years of Sacks’s life reads like a conversation between the two of them. There were a million moments when I wanted to put the book down and continue the conversation happening on the page with someone in real life.
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
It is hard to describe this book–magical, strange, breathtaking. In it, the aging Kublai Khan and the young Marco Polo sit together in the emperor’s garden while Marco Polo describes to him all the fantastical cities he has visited on his travels. The vignettes have names like “Cities & Desire”, “Cities & the Sky” and “Cities and Names”. Calvino blurs the boundaries between real and imaginary and the result is both insightful and delightful. Reading this book aloud brought these strange and beautiful worlds to life for me.
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
One of the most mouth-watering books I’ve ever read, I can only imagine how wonderful it would be to read it out loud, in the kitchen, while sipping some thick, spicy hot chocolate.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
This may seem too dense for reading out loud, but I guarantee it’s easier to get through all those multi-page paragraphs when you’re speaking them or listening to them. My friend Z read this book to me over the course of many months, and the experience solidified our friendship. It’s still one of my favorite books. The prose shimmers when it’s read aloud. Plus, it’s helpful to have a friend to help you untangle things when you can’t remember which Aureliano is which.
Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire
I read this short, evocative, collection aloud to myself. Afterward, I wished I’d had someone else to read it aloud with. The poems are searing, searching, deeply human. The imagery is magnificent. Poems are meant to be read aloud, and a collection as intimate and relevant as this one is something you want to experience with someone else.
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
This is one of those rare books I got out of the library and then immediately bought because I knew I would be reading it again. Written in a masterful first person plural POV (“we”), it tells the story of a group of Japanese women who came to California in the early 1900s as “picture brides”. It’s a short, searing poetic novel. The prose sings.
The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason
This beautiful little book, a unique retelling of the Odyssey, is perfect read-aloud material. It’s a collection of wisps, vignettes, stories, alterations, reimaginings, dreams–the Odyssey as told by those on the periphery of Odysseus’s journey.
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
This is the book that made me fall in love with reading aloud as an adult. My copy is only 127 pages. And I promise it will still be good even if you don’t stay up all night to read it in one go.
The Where, The Why, & The How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science by Matt Lamothe, Julia Rothman and Jenny Volvovski
This is an extraordinary picture book for adults. In mini, one-page essays, scientists and researchers answer questions like “Do rogue waves exist?”, “Do trees talk to each other?” and “What existed before the big bang?” These essays are accompanied by a collection of truly gorgeous and diverse illustrations. I can imagine keeping this book in the living room, and reading a page or two with family and friends after dinner.
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