Reading, Listening, and the Art of Reading Aloud

Alfred Munnings Reading Aloud Outside on the Grass, Circa 1911, by Harold Knight
Reading and listening
Great writers are great readers. And today there are so many ways to do it: read a soggy dog-eared novel at the pool, scroll through the news on a tablet at the breakfast table, page through a glossy art book at the library. Lately, I read as much with my ears as with my eyes, listening to podcasts and recorded books in the car as I schlep through traffic on errands. A good story can take the sting out of all that time logged behind the wheel. A certain stoplight occasionally reminds me of the end of Never Let Me Go, and the day I sat at it, tears streaming down my face, as the last lines unspooled. I remember the looks I got from my fellow commuters at a different stoplight one spring day, as I listened to a particularly stentorian reading of Beowulf
“If Grendel wins, it will be a gruesome day;
he will glut himself on the Geats in the war-hall,
swoop without fear on that flower of manhood
as on the other before. Then my face won’t be there
to be covered in death: he will carry me away
as he goes to ground, gorged and bloodied;
he will run gloating with my raw corpse
and feed on it alone, in a cruel frenzy,
fouling his moor-nest.”
(Beowulf, 442-450)
Not your usual morning drive-time chatter, but I have to say, no one cut me off in traffic that day. 

Reading is foundational, and I think we shouldn’t limit ourselves in form or format. It is good to read, but it is also important to nurture the special concentration it takes to listen. To follow a voice through a story with our ears, instead of only ever chasing lines of text with our eyes. 

But there’s a third leg to that stool, and that’s reading aloud. Like most people, I never really did it until I had kids, which is a good way to ease into the whole thing.

Reading to the kids
After kids, I started going to the library again to get books for them. You really can’t go wrong, babies and kids drink up any kind of interaction, and the earliest books start with one word per page. It’s not like you’re reading aloud, more like you’re messing around pointing at stuff. And, reading to kids is one of the best things you can do for their own reading development, which totally pays off when their growing reading abilities mean that THEY want YOU to leave them alone so they can just read Goosebumps or whatever. (Hello writing time!)

For more about reading to kids, 
consider this classic on the topic.

The more books I read, the more confident I got. I found there were certain books that I wanted to read over and over, often the same ones my girls wanted to hear again and again (My Truck is Stuck, Green Eggs and Ham, Little Rooster’s Diamond Button). The books with real staying power don’t just have a good story, the words and sentences had cadence and flow.

Our library has tons of recorded books in the Children’s section, but we rarely get them. I think it’s because our time reading together is still so awesome. On the porch or the couch, our heads together over a book, reading aloud is a physical act and an act of physical closeness like nothing else. The stories we experience out loud together, binds us to each other.

Verlyn Klinkenborg in her Op Ed piece gets at what reading aloud is all about:

“Reading aloud recaptures the physicality of words. To read with your lungs and diaphragm, with your tongue and lips, is very different than reading with your eyes alone. The language becomes a part of the body, which is why there is always a curious tenderness, almost an erotic quality, in those 18th- and 19th-century literary scenes where a book is being read aloud in mixed company. The words are not mere words. They are the breath and mind, perhaps even the soul, of the person who is reading.”

It’s a pleasure to read aloud, and an entirely worthwhile activity with or without children. Of course, we used to do it all the time.

The Cotter’s Saturday Night, by Sir David Wilkie*
Reading aloud and revising
Reading aloud has taught me not only how language works on the page but also in the air between mouth and ear. It is a necessary part of my revision process. After I’ve made all my big changes, reshaping the story, cutting and inserting scenes, reworked paragraphs, when I’m down to polishing sentences,  I do a pass where I read it aloud. It’s more work than pleasure. I read a sentence, stop, tinker with it, read it again before moving on. I try to save this work for the hour before school lets out when it’s just me and the dog in the dining room. He doesn’t seem to mind. He’ll listen to anything. 

“Telling stories” is more than just a colloquial way to refer to the art of writing. There is nothing better for polishing up your sentences, for finding the rhythm in the words, the breath of the story. Because telling is something you do out loud.


* Sarah L. Dowhower, Painted Literacy: Reading Aloud Rituals, n.d. (PDF)

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