Reading aloud is an activity we associate with the cozy comfort of children’s bedtime stories. Certainly the children’s classics of The Gruffalo to the Alice books are produced knowing that when they come to be read, there is a good chance that an older person will read them aloud to a younger one.
The considerable benefits of reading aloud to children are well documented. Researchers found that toddlers who are read to grow into children “more likely to have strong relationships, sharper focus, greater emotional resilience, and greater self-control.”
Unsurprisingly, the American Academy of Pediatrics therefore recommends reading aloud to children. It is even used by sociologists as one of the most important indicators of life prospects.
But if reading aloud does us so much good, why has it become above all the prerogative of childhood?
How silent reading took over
Of course, this has not always been so. Like Meghan Cox Gurdon, the the Wall Street newspaperFrom the advent of the written word until the 10th century, the children’s book reviewer emphasizes “reading was reading aloud.”
Even after silent reading became more common, it coexisted with what English literature professor Abigail Williams calls “communal” and “social” forms of reading until the 19th century. It was only when the voices of the mass media entered the home through radio and television that reading as a public activity shared among consenting adults specifically began to decline.
But as the books themselves reveal, reading aloud could be more than just social. She can be deeply attractive, forging both intimate and community bonds.
Azar Nafisi’s memoirs on the life of a woman and professor of literature in post-revolutionary Iran, Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), features students Manna and Nima, who “fell in love largely because of their common interest in literature”. If the love of literature brings this couple together, it is reading it aloud that cements their relationship. The words they read aloud evoke a safe space for their speaking difficulties.
Likewise, in Mansfield Park (1814), Jane Austen uses reading aloud as a very strong turning point in the relationship between protagonist Fanny Price and her recently declared suitor, Henry Crawford. When Henry reads aloud to the assembled assembly, his skill and sensitivity are such that Fanny is forced to sit down and listen in spite of herself.
His needlework, on which she resolutely focuses all of her attention at first, ends up falling to his knees “and finally … in short, fixed on him until the attraction draws Crawford to her, that the book is closed and the spell is broken.
This insistent rehearsal results in some pretty steamy stuff in the Regency Lounge.
Reading as seduction
Elsewhere, reading aloud goes beyond such courting (ultimately unsuccessful). Spoiler alert: Crawford misses his chance with Fanny and runs away with his (already married) cousin (gasp!).
At Bernhard Schlink The reader (1997), reading aloud underpins the relationship between the narrator, Michael, and his much older lover, Hanna – played in the 2008 film adaptation by David Kross / Ralph Fiennes and Kate Winslet.
Whether it’s to keep Michael on track, or out of pure personal interest, Hanna insists that Michael read to her before having sex. It is only much later that Michael and the reader discover that Hanna has two secrets (spoiler alert): she is a former concentration camp guard and she is illiterate.
Here, reading aloud is not just the act of warming up but is an integral part of an ‘intimate ritual of reading, showering, having sex and lying next to one another. the other “. Reading unites these two very different individuals both physically and emotionally. Much later, when Hanna is jailed for war crimes, Michael continues to read to her from a distance. The recorded recordings he sends finally allow him to learn to read himself.
The unhappy fates of some of these relationships show that reading aloud is not a one-way ticket to happiness forever. But these scenes reveal his deep sensuality. According to Gurdon, the the Wall Street newspaperChildren’s book reviewer, “There is incredible power in this fleeting exchange.”
Gurdon also suggests that reading aloud “has an incredible ability to bring us closer to each other”, both figuratively and literally. Where lonely reading pushes us to ourselves – producing the cliched image of the couple reading their own books in bed before turning around and turning off the lights – reading aloud is a shared experience.
Reading aloud takes longer, but that’s part of the point. Slow reading is sensual reading. Unlike audiobooks which are now so firmly a part of the cultural landscape, for adults and children alike, reading aloud is responsive, intuitive and embodied.
The reader is also an observer, who adapts gestures, facial expressions and intonation in response to signals. Listeners, of course, also observe their attention focused on the person in front of or next to them.
With conversation running out after months of lockdown and no restaurants, museums, and movies to go to for quite some time yet, it’s worth remembering that learning and romance is still under the covers (of the book) … so much as we read the words aloud.
Kiera Vaclavik is Professor of Children’s Literature and Childhood Culture at Queen Mary University, London.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.