In Harper Lee’s classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, there is a point where Atticus Finch, seeking to teach his son about making reparations for damaging another’s property (and about something else, too) orders his young son Jem to visit the bedside of sickly old Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose and read aloud to her.
Jem, naturally, doesn’t want to do it. He tells Atticus that inside the house is creepy in precisely the manner the mostly-empty house of a sick and elderly person can seem creepy to children. And Mrs. Dubose is “nasty” both of tongue and tremor. Atticus acknowledges that “When people are sick they don’t look nice sometimes.” Nevertheless, Jem must continue to read to her for as long as Mrs. Dubose wishes.
We learn later in the book that Jem’s reluctant service helped the mortally ill woman to get through the misery of withdrawal from morphine, a patient addiction she wished to be free of, in order to pass away as much on her own terms as possible.
“Did she die free?” asked Jem, when informed of her death.
“As the mountain air,” said Atticus.
It can be a great service to a sick person — whether seriously ill or merely down with the flu — to take the time to read aloud to them. Sickness often makes reading difficult. Sometimes it can also make it taxing to keep up a flow of conversation with well-meaning visitors. Offering to read aloud to a patient can occupy their mind, and help distract from their discomfort, as in Mrs. Dubose’s case, and it can banish awkward silences. Moreover, reading to someone is a different way of saying to them, “I am present and here for you.”
It works as a distraction, too, for people who are feeling blue, or are tense or beset with worry. As a restless flier, I was never so happy as when I discovered that my trans-Atlantic in-flight entertainment options included a selection of audible books. Selecting Dickens’ Great Expectations, I spent the long flight in the company of Pip and Miss Havisham as read by a brilliant British actor, and was wonderfully distracted from my usual miseries. Immersed within my own imaginings, with the help of an expressive reader who helped me to find humorous bits that had eluded me when reading to myself, the flight was a rare delight. I was almost sorry to land. Almost.
The recording provided a most enjoyable means of making it across an ocean; the only way it could be improved upon would have been a reading in person. But reading aloud to another is not really a public act. It is intrusive to others, but more importantly such reading carries with it a unique kind of intimacy, unspoken between all the words, particularly when it goes on beyond a day, and especially if it is a book both the reader and listener are enjoying.
An audible book, in fact, is a great present to bring to someone who is ill or depressed. But one’s presence is even better. The next time you are planning to visit a patient, whether in hospital or at home, take a look at your bookshelf, or any magazines you have handy. They might make a lovely gift for someone, made even lovelier if they come with the self-offering behind the simple question, “Would you like me to read some of this to you?”