Spoken Words: The Joy and Rewards of Reading Aloud

Recently, I helped my friend Anna edit her memoir, “The Train From Greenville,” in which she recounts her trip cross-country and back again by rail.

It’s a fine piece of work, optimistic about Americans and the country, full of quiet wisdom and acute observations, and written so that readers can hear Anna’s voice on each page. 

When we finished editing her book, both on the screen and in print, I suggested we read the book aloud. By reading aloud, we would not only catch more grammar and spelling errors, but would also hear when a sentence or passage was “off.” Anna lives in Western North Carolina, and I live six hours away in Virginia, so we agreed to do the reading by phone.

Though filled at first with trepidation, Anna quickly hit her stride, and twice a week, usually for 45 minutes or so, she would read while I followed along, catching a few misspellings and grammar errors, with Anna adding some changes to the text. 

Voices

Anna’s voice is gentle and soft, slow and a little drowsy, and listening to her read her own words was a delight. When I mentioned this project to my daughter, who was best friends with one of Anna’s children growing up, she told me to encourage Anna to make a recording of the book, simply because of her unusual voice. (At her small church this Christmas, when Anna helped the youth group present a Christmas pageant by reading from scripture, three members of the congregation approached her about her voice, with two of them commenting, “I wish you could read me to sleep every night.”)

My next read-aloud encounter involving adults came at Christmas, when I was visiting family in Pennsylvania. My son-in-law read nightly to his family in the den, mostly stories by Patrick McManus. Mike has a rich, deep voice—he could have earned a living as a radio broadcaster—and his reading again brought great pleasure.

By happy accident, a trip to the public library four days later introduced me to Meghan Cox Gurdon’s “The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction” (HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2019, 278 pages, $26.99). 

Not Just for Children

In her “Introduction,” Gurdon recognizes the importance of reading aloud to children, remarking that “social scientists now consider read-aloud time one of the most important indicators of a child’s prospects in life.” But she goes on to argue that “it would be a mistake, though, to relegate reading aloud solely to the realm of childhood.”

She writes a passage that reflected my own recent experiences: 

“For frazzled adults in midlife, whose attention is yanked in a thousand directions, taking the time to read aloud can be like applying a soothing balm to the soul. For older adults in later life, its effects are so consoling and invigorating as to make it seem like a health tonic, or even some kind of medicine.”  

Listening to Anna and Mike as they read was indeed a “soothing balm to the soul.” 

Long ago, nearly everyone read aloud. As Gurdon points out, observers regarded figures such as Alexander the Great and Saint Ambrose as eccentrics for their silent reading of a text. Of course, if all of us in the coffee shop where I am writing these words were reading aloud, the cacophony of voices might prove disturbing, rather than soothing or entertaining. 

That said, reading aloud in our homes with loved ones offers several other gifts, in addition to Gurdon’s “soothing balm.”

Other Incentives

Communal reading brings us together. These days, many of us spend our free time plinking away on our phones and computers, or we retreat to the solitude of various rooms in our house or apartment, and so often spend little time together. Reading aloud with family or friends gives us the opportunity for shared emotions: laughter, tears, pleasure, and wonder. 

Television and film can do the same, but when we read a good book with others, our imagination comes to life in a different way. We create the characters in our minds rather than having them dictated to us by a screen. Somewhere, I once heard of a child who had read “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe” aloud with his family, and then watched the movie. At the end of the film, the boy turned to his mother and said, “That’s not how I saw Lucy,” the heroine of the story. “Well, just imagine her the way you did,” his mother said, to which he replied: “No, I can’t. I can’t get the movie out of my head.”

Reading aloud slows us down. We can take greater pleasure in the author’s words or turns of phrases, and we absorb more when we hear the story or the poem. Anna’s voice brought out certain nuances I’d missed in my earlier edits. Mike’s bass voice gave resonance to the humor of the MacManus tales. The poetry of Emily Dickinson or Robert Frost, the plays of Shakespeare or Thornton Wilder, the short stories of O. Henry or Ring Lardner: In the hands of an enthusiastic reader, the words and sentences can jump to life.

For our young people, reading aloud also brings educational opportunities. (For those youngsters who dislike school, this is a wonderful way to teach them while flying under the radar.) The reading provides a springboard for all sorts of discussions, enhances vocabulary skills—“What does ‘myriad’ mean, Mama?”—and helps increase the attention span of children and perhaps some adults. Given the age we live in, when so many of us hop around on our computers like grasshoppers in a field of mown hay, this last gift is especially important.

Finally, reading with family or friends in and of itself is a pleasure without expense except for the time spent together. Throw in some hot chocolate, tea, or other treats, and enjoy an activity—storytelling—that began long ago around the fires of our distant ancestors.

Give It a Try

To make a success of reading aloud, we need a reasonably skilled reader possessed by enthusiasm, someone who understands the value of such tools as inflection and pause. We must then select literature that appeals to our audience. If Grandpa and 8-year-old grandchild William are part of the audience, we avoid Shakespeare and read instead the stories of Roald Dahl or the poetry of Shel Silverstein. 

When I leave this café, this article will be in rough draft, and I will be heading to my son’s home, where I am visiting, to a house full of children and the front seat of my car full of library books. 

As Gurdon says in her book, there’s no time like the present to start, and “there’s no present like the time.”

Gather round, kids.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.

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