My American history class has been reading Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The students range in age from teens to retirement. Most had read Huckleberry Finn in school. They agree that it’s a different, perhaps a better read now.

That’s not surprising. The Adventures is several books: a rollicking adventure story, with plenty of murder and mayhem; a morality play of competing moral codes (my students like that); a vivid picture (Mark Twain spent his youth in the time and place he describes) of a Southern state on the road to civil war; a terrible image of racism and slavery; a critique of child-rearing practices, schooling, church-going, dressy clothes, etc.; a lot of humor.

In short, something for everyone. Kids are now reading books that their parents also read in school. Adults should try re-reading; how does their new take compare to their children’s, or to their own when they were children? Discuss.

What’s most interesting, in our pandemic moment, is that my students have been reading Huckleberry Finn aloud: to children, spouses, friends. In the 19th Century, if you couldn’t play the piano or sing, or even if you could, you read aloud. After all, entertainment was live. (No radio, phonograph, or cinema, much less TV, Youtube, Spotify.) Most reading aloud was home entertainment. It could be interactive: families divvied up a novel’s characters, and played their parts.

Mark Twain read parts of Huckleberry Finn (and other works) aloud, to large, paying audiences. His readings were famously dramatic: by turns humorous, suspenseful, tragic… 19th Century authors wrote to be read aloud, at home and in public. Dickens read to adoring crowds in the United States as well as in Britain. Publication was often in serial parts in magazines. Families awaited the next issue, where the story continued. Some authors made the importance of reading aloud obvious: “Listen my children and you shall hear/ Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere…”

Getting tired of screens? Found the checkerboard and the monopoly set? Organized great-grandma’s shoe boxes of photographs? Try reading. ALOUD!

David R Jones hopes that he and next semester’s students will be reading aloud, face-to-face (even if six feet apart).


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