This summer, I got very ill and couldn’t read. Words on a printed page swam, and the brain work of transforming images to concepts pained and exhausted me. It was depressing, the disappearance of reading, one of my most constant pleasures since I was 5.
More seriously, it was a problem for my work as an editor — I was supposed to moderate a panel of writers at an upcoming festival, but I could only read their work in short bursts, just a few minutes at a time. As I convalesced and the panel drew closer, an entire book of short stories remained unread. At my snail’s pace, there was no way I would finish in time.
One night, I had a migraine and was nauseated. I told my husband he should read me one of the stories, knowing he would not want to. He likes to read sentences aloud, even longer passages, and throw them up for consideration, for debate. But a whole story? Unlikely.
Unlike a joint activity with equal pleasure, going to a museum or watching TV, reading aloud is largely altruistic. The reader understands and enjoys only in bits and pieces. The listener gains all. My husband and I were both raised as only children; we prize and compartmentalize the solitary pleasures and pain of our work. We share what we do and think in conversation, but my husband, in particular, finds reading aloud taxing and unprofitable. He is often lavish with affection, but not with favors. Especially time-consuming ones — he already had a full plate of grading papers, student meetings, writing letters of recommendation.
But he took pity on me in my miserable state, chose the shortest story and read it dutifully from beginning to end. And yet, it was not a dutiful reading. From the first sentence, he read carefully. Enunciating, but not too much, not biting words, not rushing. Dialogue was given ample space, the heightened attention it deserves. Word by word, a world opened up, and we shared a woman’s thoughts and sharp, unexpected sense of humor as she explored an old building and the surrounding streets, finding an old-fashioned Greek deli where she encountered her father, who had been dead 13 years.
At the end, we both were silent. My husband reread the last line. And there is something about the bones of this place; it really is easier to dream here.
Bones hummed and glowed; dreams was said softly, not too much romance or pressure.
My head still throbbed, but the distraction had helped. His reading had lulled me; his voice was a cushion, a balm. Also, there were now only nine stories left.
“Another one?” I asked. Childish charm would not work; I went straight for a pitiful please.
He read another.
Again, as he gave voice to the words, the architecture of the story fell into place. I felt bewildered when the narrator felt bewildered. I anticipated actions and enjoyed my expectations being subverted. Again the ending threw a subtle curveball, and we returned to earlier events and revelations. I was surprised by how firmly the story secured itself in my mind. Partly this is editorial training, but such deep impressions were not made by audiobooks, which entertained but were ephemeral. The impact came from the reading. His reading. His voice that had drawn me in, embraced me.
The next day I was going away for eight days, the week leading up to the festival. I despaired. Even with this head start, I’d never finish the book.
Then my husband said, “I could read you the stories over the phone.”
My husband’s love is fierce, but he is not a flexible man. This rigidity can make caretaking rough, unpredictable. My illness had naturally troubled and frustrated him, sometimes to anger. He wanted to fight it, or the nearest stand in — a misdirected doctor, a stupid therapist, a lazy receptionist. Sometimes my own unhelpful attitudes or actions. I could see a war going on inside him. He was overwhelmed with sympathy, and he was worried, but he also hated the disruption to his life, to our life. He struggled for how he could help me in a way that wouldn’t turn him completely upside down. In our regular daily lives, we shared chores evenly and made allowances for the other’s work. My being able to do so little, to need help in simply pursuing my job – this was new. I didn’t always know how to ask for help. I didn’t know what he thought he could do without feeling drowned.
His offer was more than tender; it was extravagant. It engulfed me.
We set up a time, 6 p.m., before dinner. He was usually at his office on campus, calling after meetings. Our life chit-chat was kept to a minimum: the stories, the reading, were what mattered.
I closed my eyes, pulled up a soft blanket, and let myself be enfolded.
I’d never thought much about my husband’s voice. I knew its Minnesota flatness in the o’s and a’s, and I could recall, instantly, the influence of his immigrant parents: Indian-British formulations like taking exercise and mangled Gujarati phrases. But knowing these things did not equal the spell cast by his cadence and timbre as he read to me.
For the first time, it seemed, I noticed these qualities. A warmth that was never sticky or soft. His voice had range but did not jar with sharp peaks or scraping valleys. The Midwestern vowels came through, but were not distracting. At the end of the day’s story, I did not want to hang up the phone.
His voice was not one ripe for performance; I wouldn’t urge him to take up the stage or occupy a recording booth. It was simply a wonderful voice that allured me. Something I had known but could not have articulated, even after 14 years together. Reading to me, reading stories I had chosen because I needed to hear them, was an intimate act of devotion. It not only helped me with my work, but also allowed me to revel in a side of him I rarely observed. Here were moments both vulnerable and so revealing they proved with a force beyond all reason that I wanted him, all of him, and to be near him always.
I would not wish to be ill so that my husband could read to me. But I was ill and his reading showed me we were in this together. More than this, I fell in love again in a way I never expected and that I needed. Being love-full was one way in which I was more than my weak body and mind. In which we were more than our separate everyday selves.
My husband attended the panel and told me he had enjoyed the conversation. He doesn’t give insincere compliments, so I was pleased. A few moments later, he reflected, “It’s not that hard to moderate, is it?” I protested, but let it go. He had made the appearance of ease possible. His reading voice still buzzed warmly in my ears.