Don’t you hate it when you’re watching a movie and someone comes in the room and immediately interrupts your mood by asking some insistent (and often petty) question, without any regard for what’s happening in your movie, completely unmindful of whether they are interrupting a comic moment or a dramatic moment or an emotional moment?
This can happen, too, when you’re watching – or interrupting – a sporting event. If you’re the sports fan, you probably know what it’s like when someone comes in – unmindful – and interrupts an especially fraught moment – and at some time I bet you have snapped or yelled at your interrupter: “Can’t you see it’s 4th down?!” Or perhaps you have been the person yelled at – unmindful. I’ll bet you probably know what it’s like to be in that situation – from either perspective.
This doesn’t have to happen. Technology continues to make it easier to avoid. If you’re watching a movie – doesn’t matter whether it’s an actual DVD (remember those?) or you’re streaming – it’s not too hard to just Pause your movie (or binged TV show) and hear what your interrupting interlocutor (it’s usually a loved one) has to say – petty or profound. Modern DVR technology makes it equally simple to interrupt – and pause – a sporting event – so there is no need for tension or impatience or resentment.
At the risk of being Miss Manners, I’ll go one step further and tell you you that in my family we’ve developed an ethic wherein if you enter a room and there’s an activity going on that is absorbing the participants – Pixar movie, baseball playoff game, Monopoly game, Settlers of Catan, Game of Thrones episode – you don’t just blast in and say, “Pause, please” (which sounds polite enough). Instead you actually pause yourself and get your bearings. Where are they in the movie or the Catan game? You can bide a moment and give folks a moment to finish their scene or turn. I think it’s polite to the participants – but it also means they will be able to more patiently consider what you have to share or ask of them.
Even more, I think it’s actually respectful of the activity itself: the shared act of watching a movie or TV show or sporting event together – or playing a board or card or dice game together. That togetherness is worth acknowledging and respecting. It’s worth honoring.
What does this have to do with reading aloud? Everything. Because the act of reading aloud together creates a similar mood. Reading aloud together casts a spell, an aura, that you don’t want to mess with. Unless the house is burning, your question about the toilet or the meal or the schedule or how to get the computer to work isn’t as important as that treasured spell, that aura. The magic that happens between reader and listener can come from many moods – funny, patient, sentimental, nostalgic, dramatic, scary – and it doesn’t matter which. They’re all special. They’re all worth preserving. The spell from a written text is created slowly, it’s built patiently. I wouldn’t say it’s fragile but it is vulnerable. The pinging demands of the real world are many – and all of them demand less of the imaginative energy it takes to conjure and illuminate the imagined world of a story, and the patient build up it can sometimes take to create humor, sentiment, nostalgia, drama etc.
I would say something similar about those other forms of entertainment. A ten-pitch at bat in baseball is more dramatic, builds tension more tantalizing, than a three-pitch at bat. Just as the anticipation expectation for Episode 10 of a ten-episode TV show is greater than for the pilot.
But when we’re talking about reading aloud we’re especially, not exclusively, but especially talking about reading to or with children. Children are probably even more vulnerable to the call of the next thing, so more than ever when you’re reading with children you don’t want someone to barge in – unmindful.
Before you do – consider the context. Can your question wait? Does it need to be answered now? If not – let ‘em finish the chapter. If yes – you can still pause in the doorway and get a sense of where they are in the story – before asking them to Pause for your question. I am here to say, Please do. Please Pause.
My appeal is to Honor the Story. Whether it’s a picture book or chapter book. And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street or Harry Potter. Or a TV show. Or a movie. Or a board game.
Honor the shared activity, the togetherness. (What the character, Stingray, in Emily Jenkins’s Toys Go Out, calls “the specialness.”) Modern parents and modern parenting need to be able to create and preserve that kind of special magic bonding togetherness – and many of us feel it’s harder to create, and even harder to preserve, in our digitally distracted modern age.
Honor the Story. Recognize the magic benefits of being together, reading together, sharing together. Don’t disrupt that magic alchemy carelessly. Be mindful. Learn and teach others how to create an ethic that honors the story. In the 9th inning. Before someone says, “Gin.” Before Horton speaks to the Whos. And not while Tom Riddle’s diary is writing back to Harry.
To honor the story is really to recognize the power and potential of a shared story. The magic bond it creates between parent and child. And the cultural riches it creates and plants in the mind and imagination and memory of a child. Forever. Tend that plant. Water those seedlings. Take our your shield; protect these moments. Hit the Pause button – politely. And Honor the Story.