How I Learned To Read Less Selfishly

In 2007, when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out, my girlfriend Katelyn and I couldn’t wait to read it. We were poor college students, so buying one book for each of us was out of the question. But we didn’t want to have to wait until the other one finished to get to read it, because we were afraid that one of us might accidentally give something crucial away. There seemed to be only one option, and that was an option I wanted to avoid.

When Katelyn suggested that we read it together, I was dismayed. My whole life, reading had been a private, solitary activity; something that happened on my own time, at my own speed, and in my own way. I blanched at the idea of inviting someone else into my experience, especially with this seminal and very important book. There were also many logistical questions to consider: do we read out loud to one another, silently side by side, or one chapter at a time, and then discuss? What constitutes as reading “together?” None of the options seemed appealing.

Looking back on it, I’m not sure why reading with someone else was such a frightening prospect. I remember trying to read the Sunday comics with my father at the kitchen table, which annoyed him to no end. “Don’t read over my shoulder!” he would snap, closing the paper with such force I was afraid he might rip Calvin and Hobbes. His frustration implied that trying to read with another person was a social faux pas.

Since Katelyn and I were at an impasse, we decided to try reading to ourselves side by side. The problem was Katelyn is a much faster reader than me – was then, is now. The majority of our reading sessions consisted of her saying, “Let me know when I can turn the page,” while I was still half a page behind. It was enough to make anyone want to quit, but she was patient. By the time we got to the Battle of Hogwarts, I was so wrapped up in the story that I hardly remembered she was there. It didn’t really feel like reading together, it felt like I was reading on my own, and she just happened to be sitting beside me.

When we both moved to New York City a few years later, we lived in separate boroughs with a long commute between. This time, we tried reading the same book, a few chapters at a time, and discussing them afterwards. We alternated who “assigned” the chapters, and I got excited about discussing what Katelyn thought of certain events, characters, or lines of dialogue. But this still wasn’t really reading together. We were reading separately and discussing our individual experience. It was difficult for our book conversations to move past flat, repetitive questions like “What did you think of _______?” or “What do you think will happen next?”

Then we got married and moved in together, and suddenly we had a lot more time to spend with each other. When we were both bit with the Potter bug at the same time, this time, I suggested we try reading the series together - really together. So we did. We spent all summer and most of the winter re-reading all seven books. We read on the couch at home, at the park, or on the train. We alternated who read out loud; I would read to her while she cooked and she read to me while I washed dishes. Her voice sped up at the exciting parts, and I developed a really good Hagrid voice.

That was an amazing summer for both of us, in large part because of how much time we spent with the TV off, reading together. Amazingly, reading together grew into something I looked forward to. It connected us in a new way I couldn’t have predicted as we bonded over a shared experience. What’s more, it showed me that reading doesn’t have to be a solitary act to be enjoyable. I learned to reach beyond my selfish desires and allow someone else into my reading, and I was much richer for it.

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