7 Read-Aloud Classics for When You’re Over Zoom Happy Hours

An image by Peter H. Reynolds for World Read Aloud Day via

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.

  1. 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.”
  2. 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!
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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. 

7 Quick Takes: February Mini Book Reviews

Notes by teenage me and my teenage sister in my copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God

Eventually I will stop reading so voraciously for escape and start living my life again, but for now, here are NOT EVEN ALL of the books I read in this stupid, never-ending February:Read More »

Seven Tiny Book Reviews

In writing my year-end writeup of everything I’ve read, I realized there were a few titles I wanted to revisit with you. Have you tried any of them yourself? What did you think?

  1. A Quiet Life in the Country: Lady Hardcastle and her lady’s maid Flo have retired to the countryside after a life of high adventure at the turn of the century, but things in their new hamlet are not as quiet as they seem. This cozy mystery has deeply delightful banter but I just didn’t care about the mechanics of the storyline, and the only characters with any depth were the two main characters. I almost liked them enough to try another in the series, but I doubt I’ll bother — at least as an audiobook, where it’s particularly difficult to focus on plot details.
  2. Sense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope: I’ve never read anything else by her, because her name seems ridiculous and her covers are always kind of frivolous and embarrassing. BUT ARE THEY ALL THIS GOOD? For more of my thoughts, check out my year-end reading post.
  3. A Confederacy of Dunces: Ok, so I’m glad to read this one — a bad Catholic book club pick if ever there were one — but I definitely wouldn’t have made it through if the group weren’t led by a medievalist who loved it and whose taste I trust. I just hate the earthiness of medieval stuff, which I think is one of the reasons I struggle with Dante. I know I’m supposed to laugh but I’m grossed out and that makes me feel like a prude which makes me mad. So: knowing that John Kennedy Toole loved Flannery O’Connor helped me through the book, and it ending with some hope and mercy helped a bit, but I’m not sure I’d be able to recommend the book, overall.
  4. The Heart of Perfection: How the Saints Taught Me to Trade My Dream of Perfect for God’s: When I was in high school, I believed I was laidback (!!). Later, my boyfriend pointed out that I’m only competitive in arenas where I think I can win, and now I look back and see the marks of perfectionism all over my childhood. I still struggle today, and I often refer back to a favorite line from Anne Lamott: “I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die.” Colleen Carroll Campbell urges us in this book to be gentle with ourselves, to accept God’s love, to trust, to deliberately and diligently root out all the places in our lives where we grasp for control and grow harsh in our striving. A must-read for any ambitious Ravenclaw Catholic.
  5. Underground Airlines: I loved Ben Winter’s Last Policeman series and was fascinated by the premise of this book. This is an America where the Civil War was settled differently, and slavery maintained in certain Deep South states, and here, Victor, an escaped slave, has made a deal with the devil to catch escaping slaves on behalf of the US government. I thought the plot grew convoluted, though, and I thought the optimism of the end and setup for a sequel were both a bit clunky. I don’t think I’ll read any subsequent books in the series.
  6. Waiting for Tom Hanks: Another kind of embarrassing one that I ended up enjoying. I had forgotten how much I enjoy the cringiness of romantic tension, and the self-aware references to favorite films like You’ve Got Mail certainly helped. The plot itself was fairly improbable (as per the genre) and a bit given to wish fulfillment and neat endings, but the characters were relatable and I really loved how — as in movies like the aforementioned YGM and Notting Hill — the community surrounding the protagonists had warmth and color.
  7. Marilla of Green Gables: I didn’t love this one. I felt like the author was imposing too much on the character, refusing to accept her for the rigid but warm person she is in the canon and instead inserting a lot of anachronistic social justice stuff like so many period dramas, which rush to make every character espouse the most progressive views, regardless of their social context.

7 Ways Anne of Green Gables Prepared Me for Homeschooling

(I’m joining in this week with Kelly at This Ain’t the Lyceum for 7 (not so) Quick Takes. You can visit the other posts in this link-up here!)

When it comes to figuring out this life of mine, particularly the homeschooling aspect, sometimes I feel like I’m navigating without a roadmap — and if you know me, you know I’m absolutely dependent on GPS for my continued survival. I enjoyed a fairly conventional suburban childhood and attended public school straight through. Lucky for me I had Anne of Green Gables to prepare me for home educating my kids.Read More »