"My mother taught me that reading isn’t necessarily a quiet pursuit. Reading aloud often illuminates a text."
Photo: Tony Powell
My mother was a wonderful actress. She is chiefly remembered as the voice of the very first Lois Lane on the radio, but she had an amazing stage and television career as well. She was a famous beauty and she had a lovely, melodic voice. She was always quoting Shakespeare to me from the time I was little. I was too young to understand it at the age of four, but the way she read it made me love it.
She told me that Shakespeare was a lot like the Bible. Every human emotion could be found in his work, expressed in the genius of his writing. We sometimes read the plays together. Her favorite was Hamlet. The night before I went to boarding school, she made me read aloud Polonius’ speech to Hamlet because she said it was full of great advice.
“Neither borrower nor lender be, for loan oft loses both itself and friend… Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy… To thine own self be true; thou canst not then be false to any man…” Like that.
When I finished, my mother said, “I can’t think why Shakespeare gave this marvelous speech to that old fool Polonius! But you memorize it!”
She taught me that reading isn’t necessarily a quiet pursuit. Reading aloud often illuminates a text. This came in handy when I first attempted to read Joyce’s Ulysses. I hated it. But then I started reading it aloud. Lo and behold, it became a different book—one I came to love and appreciate. My mother gave me that gift.
She kept a book of Shakespeare’s sonnets by her bed. Near the end of her life, she found out she had been swindled out of most of her money by her accountant, whom she had adored and trusted above anyone in the world for over 30 years. The betrayal nearly killed her. When she got over the initial shock, I asked her if Shakespeare had ever written about an accountant who swindled a trusting old woman out of millions. It was a cheeky question, meant to elicit a laugh. Without hesitation, she opened the sonnets and told me to read the one she pointed at aloud.
The last lines of that Sonnet are: “For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds; Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”
She smiled with satisfaction.
She was a wise one, my mother. I still read aloud.
Jane Stanton Hitchcock was born and raised in New York City, where she led a seemingly privileged life. Early on, she learned the trappings of wealth and fame are not nearly all they are cracked up to be, themes she has since explored in screenplays, stage plays, and novels dealing with murder and mayhem in high places. She is married to Jim Hoagland, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. They live in Washington, DC, and New York City.
This "Writers on Reading" essay was originally published in "At the Scene" enews April 2019 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.