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.
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