Sunday, December 22, 2013

Reading to Diana

When my phone rang some weeks ago and I heard my friend, Diana, say, “I was just thinking of all those books and articles about apartheid you read to me,” I knew Nelson Mandela had died. I read the books to her because she is blind and it seemed to take forever for some titles to make it onto Library for the Blind cassettes.

But it was Diana who made apartheid something more than a problem that happened “over there” or the foreign policy concern that the Reagan administration met with “constructive engagement.” I read Donald Woods’ Biko and Asking for Trouble because she suggested them. I read Joseph Lelyveld’s Move Your Shadow and Breyten Breytenbach’s The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist to her because I could get my hands on them quickly. We also worked our way through articles about other movement figures like Joe Slovo and Ruth First. It made the horror more personal somehow and I remember our shared sadness when Donald Woods died.

For a number of years Diana and I lived next door to each other at Coles House and we clicked in the way that only readers can when we discovered a mutual love of all sorts of books. We started our shared reading with Gary Kinder’s Victim: The Other Side of Murder which, as its title suggests, looks at long term effects of a crime on victims and their families. The book was horrifying but very well written and I discovered how wonderful reading to someone could be. Rather than just recommending a book to a friend, I could read it to her and we could enjoy it at the same time. It was fabulous.

We had a weekly Sunday reading ritual that centered on the Sunday New York Times. We would skip the formal Coles House breakfast and Diana would bring back the paper, 4 large coffees and 4 donuts. Fueled on caffeine and sugar we began our reading in high spirits no matter how bad the news. We lingered over the Book Review, the Magazine and any especially unusual obituaries.

At Christmas time, the reading of the New York Times included a close perusal of the The Neediest Cases, an appeal to Times’ readers to give money to a number of social service agencies that supported vulnerable populations within the city. Today the profiles of families appear on a daily basis and there is a photograph of the family and the accompanying story suggests that no matter how deeply needy these people might be, there is hope that their lot will improve.

This is an honorable approach, but years ago, the neediest cases were presented in somewhat starker fashion. There was a whole section of the paper devoted to the needy. Illustrations were black and white pen and ink drawings and the stories that accompanied them were Dickensian in both detail and misery. I don’t remember if the writing was good or tinged with purple but the stories were amazingly compelling. Diana and I were riveted to every word.

Diana and I each left Coles House and, for a time, lived on separate floors of the same apartment building. So we continued The Times readings and I would read her things as they struck my fancy. It was at another Christmas that I read A Prayer for Owen Meany. As you will recall, it has a compelling opening line:

"I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany."

I will confess that I usually avoid novels with religious themes but I loved that line and shared it immediately with Diana. Though I do little acting when I read, this book did compel me to come up with an Owen Meany voice, which I can still produce though years have passed. I didn’t read the whole novel to Diana but I read her large sections and we enjoyed his comments about Christmas carols (“‘Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying. VERY Christmasy’”), his defense of Liberace (“‘Well, he was very good to George’”) and his portrayal of the Ghost of Christmas Future—a performance so chilling that one of his classmates wets her pants. It’s not a book that either of us can read every year—the ending is very sad. But we remember that reading as a kind of milestone of our friendship and always talk about it at Christmas time.

Diana and live about 15 minutes from each other now. I still read to her occasionally but certainly not as much as I once did. Modern technology gives her many different ways to find the books she wants. But the intimacy of reading aloud has given our friendship a sort of literary history that no technology can replace.

© 2013 Stephanie Patterson


  1. A very peaceful Christmas to you and your husband, Steph, and to Kate, Annamaria, Bob , Sheila and all their families and loved ones. Thelma

  2. Steph, I can see what a gift you and Diana are to each other. What a pleasure to read together. I have friend who is vision-impaired from diabetes. His wife reads to him. When they talk to me about their joint experience reading my books, it is completely different from talking to anyone else about the reading experience. There is a richness in our enjoyment of books we read aloud to a sympathetic friend.

  3. You know, Annamaria, Diana and I both read a lot of mysteries, but I don't read them to her. She does have more ready access to mysteries than to some other fiction and nonfiction. She has favorite readers for her Library for the Blind books and, indeed, they have an award program for those readers. I think my own reading is rather flat (though I have to say I hammed it up a bit for the voice of Owen Meany). Diana says she's not crazy about the more commercially produced audio books because she thinks the acting can get in the way of the text.

  4. Oh, and is she right about some of that acting. The reader for Blood Tango slurred her way over the Spanish names and to my GREAT dismay almost always put the emphasis on the prepositions. EG: Not, "I have to THINK about that." But, "I have TO think ABOUT that." UGH!!!!!

  5. Oh, what a cringe for the writer and the listener! I've heard other writers complain about this so I assume that you have no input on any of that.

  6. Right you are. I will not go ohm though I could. On the other hand, they paid for the rights.

  7. It is always a hardship when we turn over the various areas to another line - be it reading, filming, etc. It's a wonder so many books get made into good films... tjs