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Some Thoughts on the Lost Art of Reading Aloud
By VERLYN KLINKENBORG
Published: May 16, 2009
New York Times
Sometimes the best way to understand the present is to look at it from the past. Consider audio books. An enormous number of Americans read by listening these days — listening aloud, I call it. The technology for doing so is diverse and widespread, and so are the places people listen to audio books. But from the perspective of a reader in, say, the early 19th century, about the time of Jane Austen, there is something peculiar about it, even lonely.
In those days, literate families and friends read aloud to each other as a matter of habit. Books were still relatively scarce and expensive, and the routine electronic diversions we take for granted were, of course, nonexistent. If you had grown up listening to adults reading to each other regularly, the thought of all of those solitary 21st-century individuals hearkening to earbuds and car radios would seem isolating. It would also seem as though they were being trained only to listen to books and not to read aloud from them.
It’s part of a pattern. Instead of making music at home, we listen to recordings of professional musicians. When people talk about the books they’ve heard, they’re often talking about the quality of the readers, who are usually professional. The way we listen to books has been de-socialized, stripped of context, which has the solitary virtue of being extremely convenient.
But listening aloud, valuable as it is, isn’t the same as reading aloud. Both require a great deal of attention. Both are good ways to learn something important about the rhythms of language. But one of the most basic tests of comprehension is to ask someone to read aloud from a book. It reveals far more than whether the reader understands the words. It reveals how far into the words — and the pattern of the words — the reader really sees.
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.
No one understood this better than Jane Austen. One of the late turning points in “Mansfield Park” comes when Henry Crawford picks up a volume of Shakespeare, “which had the air of being very recently closed,” and begins to read aloud to the young Bertrams and their cousin, Fanny Price. Fanny discovers in Crawford’s reading “a variety of excellence beyond what she had ever met with.” And yet his ability to do every part “with equal beauty” is a clear sign to us, if not entirely to Fanny, of his superficiality.
I read aloud to my writing students, and when students read aloud to me I notice something odd. They are smart and literate, and most of them had parents who read to them as children. But when students read aloud at first, I notice that they are trying to read the meaning of the words. If the work is their own, they are usually trying to read the intention of the writer.
It’s as though they’re reading what the words represent rather than the words themselves. What gets lost is the inner voice of the prose, the life of the language. This is reflected in their writing, too, at first.
In one realm — poetry — reading aloud has never really died out. Take Robert Pinsky’s new book, “Essential Pleasures: A New Anthology of Poems to Read Aloud.” But I suspect there is no going back. You can easily make the argument that reading silently is an economic artifact, a sign of a new prosperity beginning in the early 19th century and a new cheapness in books. The same argument applies to listening to books on your iPhone. But what I would suggest is that our idea of reading is incomplete, impoverished, unless we are also taking the time to read aloud.