Sunday, July 16, 2017

Reading Aloud

One night last week, I read the first three chapters of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet aloud. My wife's book club is to discuss this in a couple of weeks, and her eyes were bothering her. I noticed a number of things, some owing to reading aloud, some owing to this being a second reading.

First, about myself. I was unable to read the first chapter, a difficult childbirth, unmoved. One of the women in my wife's book club was not sure about going on with the book after the first chapter. I did not understand this when I heard of it; I do now. I wonder whether I would have read it the same way at 20 or 30, before I had been in a delivery room (save as the one delivered). I wonder what I made of it when our (shared) book club read it some years ago.

Second, about a detail. In the second chapter, an troublesome character on board the American ship Shenandoah is restrained by marines. But if this ship is an American ship of war, what is it doing carrying wares for the Dutch Overseas Company? And if it is not a ship of war, how does it come to have marines? Discipline, and often harsh discipline, was enforced in the American merchant marine from early days; but not by marines in the military sense.

Third, about another detail that I had noticed in rereading later chapters: David Mitchell does not seem to distinguish between cross and crucifix. As far as I know, the Anglicans of 1800 did not go in for crucifixes, nor did the Calvinists of that day. But in this novel they do. The Georgian captain of the Shenandoah seems to have plenty of crucifixes and rosaries for the Japanese customs service to secure and impound. Yet though Catholics were never unknown in the US merchant marine and Navy, were they that prevalent?

My wife has since purchased the audiobook. She says, and I believe, that the reader does better than I did. He uses different voices for the different characters; I might have tried that, had I been able to settle on what they should sound like. If I listen to the audiobook at all, though, it will be to see how the reader renders Dutch names--what does Vorstenbosch sound like, or Oost, or Gronigen?


  1. Ungrateful wife.

    Is it worth reading?

    1. It is worth reading, yes. When our club read it, I thought at first that it was going to be one of those novels that dwells on how smelly and crude the past was. That never wholly goes away, but it becomes less obtrusive.

    2. I would be too self-conscious reading to my wife. And I would be too impatient if she read to me. Perhaps that is rooted in this memory: I do not recall ever being read to except in school, and I did not like it then. Hmmmm. I once tried listening to a book on tape while driving; I don't remember much about the book or the drive (i.e., I guess I am a single-channel device).

    3. It seems to me that novels are written to be read, poetry and drama to be heard (and the latter seen). I think that an audio book is fine for those sore of eye or short of time, yet it seems to me that the printed page makes it much easier to glance back over the paragraph or refer back a few pages, and this allows the novelist to write in a different manner.