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On the Road

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The intimacy of reading aloud

By Paula Marantz Cohen


 

I drove back to New Jersey from Tennessee last summer with my daughter, who had spent the year teaching in the South. We began our journey in Memphis in her 2000 Subaru with 110,000 miles on the odometer and new Arkansas plates. My daughter had acquired the plates to avoid being mistaken, as she had been a few months earlier, for a drug runner. (It seems a young woman in a Subaru with New Jersey plates and a window decal from a northeastern college fit the profile of someone who might smuggle drugs to and from the Delta.)

We had decided to drive straight through, breaking only once at a motel to sleep. I say “we,” but I was exempt from driving. My daughter, at 23, has finally accepted that I am not good at practical things like driving. So instead of allowing my driving to irritate her, she assigned me the task of reading aloud to her as she drove.

The first book she chose was entitled The Happiness Project, about how a mildly happy woman from New York City set about trying to become happier. Although I don’t normally read self-help books, I found this one entertaining. It wasn’t Jane Austen, but it did what it said it would do: outlined a step-by-step plan for making oneself happier. I realized I was being renovated by my daughter, who had chosen the book, it seemed, more for my benefit than for hers. She is a happy person, whereas I am constantly struggling to be as happy as I feel I should be.

The other book I read was an organic chemistry study guide—part of her preparation for taking the MCATs when she got home. Needless to say, the prose here didn’t sing. In fact, it was as dry as an organic chemistry text. Yet when my daughter nodded her head, showing she understood a given concept, I felt as happy as anything The Happiness Project might have aimed for.

This division of reading matter—one text for me, one for her—worked out well. She didn’t need to learn how to be happier, and I didn’t need to understand organic chemistry.

There are, I know, many ways to experience bonding with another person on the road. You can talk about your feelings, you can appreciate the scenery, you can bask in your own thoughts in the presence of the other. But there is something to be said for reading aloud—and making the reading matter a gift to the other person.

Paula Marantz Cohen is a distinguished professor of English at Drexel University and the author of the novels Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death and the SATs and What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper. Her new novel, Suzanne Davis Gets a Life, will be published this spring.


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