At this point in the quarantine, I think we’ve probably all found ourselves there, overwhelmed and frustrated in the sea of familiar faces of a Zoom or FaceTime call with friends. Something that was supposed to be fun, to remind you of normal life IRL, has somehow managed to make you feel even lonelier. You clutch your glass of wine as you prepare to repeat a canned summary of how you’re hanging in there for the sixth person to join the call.
It turns out, it’s hard to replicate the spontaneity and side conversations of in-person social gatherings on a video conferencing platform. And one remedy for this awkwardness might surprise you, because at first it sounds even more awkward: gathering a group of friends online to read something out loud. Still, reading aloud together eliminates some of the stilted quality of large-group Zoom conversation, with its lags and embarrassed interruptions. You know when it’s your turn, and things move mostly smoothly, but you’re still getting to share something together.
J and I had hosted a read-aloud party once before the pandemic because I’m a librarian super nerd — and it’s certainly more fun with your friend’s beer and your other friend’s cheese plate — but when we hosted another read-aloud party, this time online, I was surprised to discover how satisfying the gathering still was.
The guest list portion is easy: suddenly it doesn’t matter that that friend moved six months ago, or that that other friend is in the sleep-deprived newborn phase, because everyone is in this together. I would recommend, however, making sure most of the participants know each other, to help eliminate some of the self-consciousness of trying something new together.
If you’re looking to dip a toe into reading aloud with friends, I’d suggest you start by revisiting the classics. They’re free or cheap to acquire, and probably something you’ve always meant to get back to. Below, I’m linking in with Seven Quick Takes to share a few ideas to get you thinking about how to host your own read-aloud party.
- A lengthy and complex poem like The Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot works well and can easily be found online. (This was our recent read-aloud party choice.) Encourage people to call themselves out and yell “NEXT!” when overwhelmed by particularly tricky bits of language— everyone will be equally over their heads with a poem like this, but it offers up treasures when read slowly together, especially in the current crisis. Is this wisdom for a quarantine or what? “I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope / For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, / For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith / But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting. / Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: / So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”
- You can’t go wrong with Shakespeare when you have a large crowd. Conventional wisdom is that the tragedies (like Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello) are easier to understand because tragedy is tragedy no matter what, while comedy sometimes requires context to be funny. Not up for more tragedy in the present climate? A recent pre-pandemic Epiphany read through of Twelfth Night with a group of friends showed how much can become clearer just by reading it aloud, even when you’re not entirely sure what you’re reading. Goofy costumes optional!
- Intimidated by poetic language? C.S. Lewis couldn’t be clearer and some of his shorter works, such as the sermon “The Weight of Glory” can be found reproduced online for free. You could also try the Victorian-era sermons of recently canonized St. Cardinal John Henry Newman.
- For a slightly more expensive option, read aloud a couple pivotal chapters from an old, free work like Emma or Little Women, then each partygoer can rent the new film adaptation and discuss.
- Hold a poetry reading where each attendee can read aloud (or recite!) a favorite poem, talent-show style. It can be surprising to find out what poems and passages your friends know by heart.
- Try Treasure Island for rollicking pirate adventures with an unexpected edge of moral complexity that can lead to fun discussions. Committing to this read aloud will take you three or four hours.
- G.K. Chesterton — just about any G.K. Chesterton, honestly. And there’s Chesterton for any taste: detective stories (The Father Brown short stories), apologetics (Orthodoxy), essays (What’s Wrong with the World), a “metaphysical thriller” (what even is that? The Man Who Was Thursday) and more.