“Wait, are Snape and Voldemort brothers?!”
This was my girlfriend last week.
I’m reading the Harry Potter series out loud to her (she’s never read the books or seen the movies(!)), and like most people, we’ve given extra chapters preferential treatment over parties, outdoor activities, and in the most gripping sections, bathing ourselves.
It is the best kind of book club. Not only are we sure everyone’s caught up, but we get to construct the world together in the spaces between us. We breathe life into the castle, discuss the characters’ moral decisions, make embarrassingly inaccurate predictions, and argue about magic’s real world applications. (We’ve yet to discover a prophecy that says a certain presidential candidate must die if we live.)
We never want this experience to end, but, alas, we’ve just started the seventh book.
So. Where to next?
All of the read-aloud lists I’ve found online are made up of books for young readers. As well they should be. Children’s books were built to be read aloud, and believe me, my girlfriend and I will read them. But by restricting ourselves to these lists, I think we’re neglecting some pretty interesting universes.
So I’ve made a list of my own. A short list. An imperfect list. But a good list nonetheless.
I’ve tried to limit myself to one of each of the following: a novel, a short story collection, a work of non-fiction, a graphic novel, and a book series. Each has, at the very least, a slight speculative fiction slant, because we are on Tor, after all.
The following are books for grown-ups that beg to be read aloud. Their words will rove through your mind like something alive, searching for an escape, forcing wide your lips so you can share them with the nearest person. I imagine it’s what vampirism must feel like.
So, don’t be bashful.
Do the funny voices.
Read the scary parts slowly.
Pause for dramatic effect.
Best Read-Aloud Novel: The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle
Why: When you suggest reading a book about a unicorn out loud to a grown-up, they might laugh at you. I hope they do. It will make things that much sweeter when Beagle’s lyrical prose perverts and elevates all fantasy tropes, making their mockery melt right off their faces.
Who will curl up in front of you: Seven-year-old girls who have been trained that unicorns are only for them. And maybe a few bronies. Keep a flyswatter handy to deal with these irritations.
Tips for reading: Read outside. It’s okay if you’re uncomfortable. So are the characters you’re reading about.
Runner-ups: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, Beloved by Toni Morrison, Perfume by Patrick Suskind, Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut, and The Princess Bride by William Goldman.
Best Read-Aloud Short Story Collection: Pastoralia by George Saunders
Why: Saunders’ prose reads as easy as breathing. It’s absurd on the surface, challenging underneath, and each story pulls taut an intricate web of morality that only gets stickier the more you wrestle with it. They say Saunders is the best short story writer alive today. In this case, they are right.
Tips: Let Saunders’s prose dictate how quickly or slowly you read. Discuss how you would escape these impossible situations.
Who will curl up in front of you: Lovers of language, absurdity, and moral quandaries.
Runner-ups: Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link, One More Thing by B.J. Novak, Black Juice by Margo Lanagan, Everything’s Eventual by Stephen King, The Middle Stories by Sheila Heti, and The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury.
Best Read-Aloud Graphic Novel: Saga by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples
Why: Saga has everything: death, love, romance, heartbreak, magic, naturally occurring tree space ships, aliens, anthropomorphism, crude humor, smart humor, royalty with televisions for heads, sexy sex scenes, unsexy sex scenes, horrific violence, and a cat who always knows if you’re lying. All of these elements could fall flat if it weren’t for Fiona Staples frankly jaw-dropping artwork. Your eyes will ache from want of blinking.
Tips for reading: Assign different characters to different readers (you’ll be that much more devastated when they die). Don’t restrict yourself with traditional gender roles.
Runner-ups: Through the Woods by Emily Carroll, Promethea by Alan Moore, The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew, Sandman by Neil Gaiman, and Castle Waiting by Linda Medley.
Best Read-Aloud Non-fiction: Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach
Why: Okay, I realize that by definition non-fiction cannot have a speculative fiction slant. However, some books are able to capture a piece of our world from an angle that makes it feel quite alien. And what real-world setting feels more sci-fi than people having sex in a science lab during an era when research on the topic is outlawed? Roach is hilarious, humble, and savvy as a pig being prepped for insemination. Some of the stories will definitely leave you feeling Less Than Sexy, but your water cooler conversation game will go through the roof.
Who will curl up in front of you: Perverts and science nerds (together at last).
Tips: Don’t read this one aloud to your mom.
Runner-ups: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace, The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris, and Stiff by Mary Roach (if you want your stomach pinched instead of your cheeks).
Best Read-Aloud Series: The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Why: This series was pitched to me as “Harry Potter goes to college, with sex and drugs and all that that implies.” I think that analysis does a disservice to the work. Unlike Hogwarts, the magic here feels … more realistic, if that makes any sense. It’s dangerous and difficult and worms into dimensions most of its users don’t understand. And when they do understand it, they wish they hadn’t. Grossman’s trilogy about kids in a magical school tackles more adult themes. What do you do when you reach your goals and feel dissatisfied? How do you come to terms with growing up and leaving Hogwarts behind? The Magicians contains pockets of magic so deep that I felt lost when I went out into the world, knowing the only way to find my way back again would be to keep reading.
Who Will Curl Up In Front of You: Those who feel disenfranchised from Harry Potter and the real world. Also, goths.
Tips: Make big, gopping predictions about where the story’s headed (and prepare to be delightfully wrong). The first volume’s climax is slightly anti-climactic. Don’t stop.
Runner-ups: Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin, Discworld by Terry Pratchett, A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.
All right, looks like that’s about i—
Rrg. Fine. FINE. Children’s books are too delightful not to read aloud, and they keep our imaginations crackling.
Let’s do those too.
Best Read-Aloud Children’s Book for Grown-Ups: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Why: Neil Gaiman was a struggling cobbler from Wales, whose literary career was cut short by an errant horseshoe kicked free by a duke’s thoroughbred. Gaiman’s grieving husband found the individual pages of this work tucked beneath the insoles of every shoe he failed to sell.
Shut up, Lying Cat.
The Graveyard Book is, if you ask me, peak Gaiman. Each chapter is a unique short story that tells of a boy being raised by ghosts in a graveyard. The characters are as charming as they are unsettling and as trustworthy as they are transparent. Gaiman is able to pull off that rare magic trick of alluding to very adult things between the words, having grown-ups and children shiver alike at all the myths buried beneath us all.
Who will curl up in front of you: Your friends who say they’re “so weird” because Halloween is their favorite holiday (so a lot of them).
Tips: Make an effort to set a mood (candles, incense, smoke machine); better yet, find a graveyard and let it set a mood for you.
Runner-ups: The Canning Season by Polly Horvath, A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland series by Catherynne M. Valente, Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne, His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman.
There. Now that’s really it.
May those you love snuggle up around your feet. May your evenings be filled with gasps and sighs (of the literary variety).