How To Choose A Non-Cringe Wedding Reading

Photo: Lily Berg/EyeEm
“Whatever you do, don’t do Captain Corelli’s F**king Mandolin. I’ve heard it three times.” This was the advice I was given when I was first asked to choose a reading for my friend’s wedding. Five minutes later, someone else said exactly the same thing...Louis de Bernières was off the table.
Anyone making the slog through several summers of nuptials will empathise. From the tooth-achingly saccharine to the weird proliferation of 'comedy' poems about all the arguments they’ll probably have, the readings are rarely anyone’s highlight.
But as weddings have pivoted away from tradition – couples are less likely to get married in church than ever before – the ceremony has become as tailor-made as the dress, as long as you both get to the “I do” part.
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Hyper-customisation is the way forward and the pick-and-mix approach to wedding ceremonies is as millennial as the portmanteau hashtag, the mason jar cocktails, and the fairy lights-and-floral bunting design combo.
Choosing the right words for the couple, the occasion and the reader is daunting, especially if you’re picking for someone else’s ceremony. One night in my research I realised I’d read almost every Modern Love column The New York Times had ever published and was still coming up empty-handed.
So whether you’re choosing a reading for your own wedding or someone else’s, here are some tips and suggestions to ensure no one’s gagging on cheesy Nicholas Sparks-level mushiness or rolling their eyes at the sixth Velveteen Rabbit of the year.
Know your audience
I was a guest at one laid-back garden wedding where a guest solemnly, and with a completely straight face, read the entire lyrics to Chaka Khan’s "Ain’t Nobody" (including the “oh oh oh ohs”). Most of the guests didn’t realise what they were hearing until the chorus kicked in and it brought the house down. At another, two thespy guests performed snippets from The Merchant of Venice to a rapt audience, in homage to the couple, who met performing in a play. Both were spot-on in capturing the mood of the couple, the ceremony and the crowd. So if you know you’ve got a super woke congregation, maybe it’s the perfect time to break out the bell hooks or if the couple are both scientists, perhaps something textbook – literally – might honour their chemistry.
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Go gender neutral
If some elements of the institution of marriage make you feel icky, going gender neutral opens up your options. Steer clear of crusty gender-based humour (“She’s a nag and he’s a lech; she’ll be moody once a month and he’ll probably end up with a drinking problem. Congrats guys!") and look for passages that aren’t bogged down in traditional wedding lingo. Queer blogs and sites geared towards same-sex marriage are a great source for readings that don’t explicitly refer to husbands and wives but instead focus on themes like falling in love, partnership, togetherness and connection.
Get off the beaten track
The readings we hear time and time again are popular for good reason but mining some less exhausted sources can turn up a gem or two. If you love an author or poet, try searching their essays, letters or interviews for the perfect quotes, instead of their main works. Looking at the relationships considered the greatest loves of all time (fictional and real), they often go from ferocious passion to volatile infidelity (Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo), or from naive bliss to untimely death (Romeo and Juliet). For fresher inspiration, look at pop culture couples that the happy couple might be into: Tim and Dawn in The Office or Johnny Cash and June Carter.
Stick to your values
This doesn’t mean arming bridesmaids with placards or shunning the microphone for a megaphone but you can still make choices that reflect your beliefs. At my friend’s wedding I decided it was important to me, as a feminist, to read words written by a woman. Although a number of my failsafes deserted me in the moment – despite her sizeable contribution to the romantic comedy canon, Nora Ephron is better on snarky divorce debriefing than she is on love – in the end, Jeanette Winterson came through for me.
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Write your own
The if-all-else-fails option. When Gareth, 31, was asked to read at his best friend’s wedding, the internet listicles felt impersonal so he bit the bullet and wrote his own contribution to the ceremony. “I just wrote about how you have your best mates who you love but then you find your partner in crime who you can be your absolute self with,” he says. This gives you total free rein to perhaps mention the couple’s meet-cute, their pets or mutual obsessions. Keep it short and sweet though, and steer clear of after-dinner speech territory – remember, that part of the day is yet to come so you don’t want to tread on toes and (crucially) this is also pre-fizz.
Jeanette Winterson, from Big Questions from Little People and Simple Answers from Great Minds
Good for: Couples that have had long-distance relationships; animal-lovers
“You don't fall in love like you fall in a hole. You fall like falling through space. It’s like you jump off your own private planet to visit someone else’s planet. And when you get there it all looks different: the flowers, the animals, the colours people wear. It is a big surprise falling in love because you thought you had everything just right on your own planet, and that was true, in a way, but then somebody signalled to you across space and the only way you could visit was to take a giant jump. Away you go, falling into someone else’s orbit and after a while you might decide to pull your two planets together and call it home. And you can bring your dog. Or your cat. Your goldfish, hamster, collection of stones, all your odd socks. (The ones you lost, including the holes, are on the new planet you found.)
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And you can bring your friends to visit. And read your favourite stories to each other. And the falling was really the big jump that you had to make to be with someone you don’t want to be without. That’s it.
P.S. You have to be brave.”
Maya Angelou, "Touched By An Angel"
Good for: Romantics; humanist ceremonies
"We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.
Love arrives
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.
We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love's light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.
Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex
Good for: Non-traditionalists; feminists
"Authentic love must be founded on reciprocal recognition of two freedoms; each lover would then experience himself as himself and as the other: neither would abdicate his transcendence, they would not mutilate themselves; together they would both reveal values and ends in the world."
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