Marietta Pritchard: Great expectations when reading aloud

Last modified: Friday, March 14, 2014
AMHERST — Read to your children, say the wise educators as well as the large athletes on TV. Who can argue with that? But what about adults reading to each other? I haven’t yet heard that it’s part of the locker-room culture, but it can surely be a great pleasure. The proof for me is an unusual book group that has been anchoring my reading life for more than two decades. The unusual part is that we meet weekly and that we read aloud.

We began as a twosome, refugees from a more traditional group that had met monthly over dinner in Amherst or Northampton to discuss a current book we’d assigned ourselves. That group, though congenial — perhaps too much so — became more of an eating than a reading group, and eventually disbanded. At that point, Jane and I — who both live on the same side of the river decided we’d take on a project we’d always intended to approach — began to read through Marcel Proust’s great monster, “In Search of Lost Time.”

We assigned ourselves a chunk each week — usually about 50 pages, then picked some pages that we wanted to hear aloud. Jane is fluent in French, and was able to read the novel in the original. My French is much more wobbly, but I could follow along as she read aloud if I had already read it in English. So we brought our sandwiches and sat at each other’s kitchen tables and started out. That was 1993. We continued, with some interruptions, and then invited a few others to join us, at which point we began reading only in English, and eventually finished the book. We still brought our lunches to each other’s houses, and the hostess — yes, we were and are all women — would make a pot of tea. I went out and bought a bigger, pale green china teapot to make tea for five.

I still have my Proust teapot, but we no longer make tea, and we no longer read Proust — we did it twice, the second time with some serious skipping. Lately there has been talk about starting up again. Time, along with much else, has indeed been lost in the meantime. When Mel found it difficult to get around in the winter, we met only at her house. When she died much too soon, we began meeting at Fran’s house, who was also finding it hard to get around. The group does not have a leader, and no one is assigned to give reports on what we’re reading, although if someone wants to bring in an interesting article or related book, that’s fine. Once or twice we’ve invited an expert in the field to give us a boost.

We have tended to choose books we would not read on our own — the ones we claim we’ve always been meaning to read. So we started in on “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” at which point Becky, a classics professor joined us, helping us make sense of the gods and heroes. A list of other works we’ve read includes Joyce’s “Ulysses,” Dante’s “Inferno,” Chekhov stories and at least one of his plays (at a potluck with spouses), a bit of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” (“The Wife of Bath”), the opening section of “Beowulf,” all of “Paradise Lost,” “Huckleberry Finn,” and a chunk of the King James version of the Old Testament, plus Luke’s telling of the Christmas story.

At one of our members’ suggestion, we spent most of a year reading poetry, a genre only a few of us tend to read independently. No agenda here, again: We would simply each bring a poem or poems that had struck our fancy to read aloud and try to make sense of. Now we are back to prose, and recently spent some time with Richard Kim’s novel, “Lost Names.” At the moment we are happily plowing through “Great Expectations,” with plans to use one meeting to watch the 1946 film. Maybe by summer we’ll be back to our Proustian beginnings.

Marietta Pritchard can be reached at

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