Bringing the family together by reading aloud

Every night on the Appalachian Trail we followed the same wonderfully basic routine. First, we pitched our backpacking tent in the quiet woods and hauled water from a nearby stream to our one-night site. Then we cooked over a miniature gas stove, ate dinner in the twilight, cleaned the pots and pans, and straightened up. Finally, before sleeping we opened our paperback book, snuggled up inside our tent, and read aloud to each other.

We took turns reading sections of T. H. White's enchanting ''The Sword in the Stone.'' It turned out to be the perfect book for us. We were hiking the 2,000 -mile trail from Georgia to Maine and lived outdoors for 41/2 months. The story was the first part of White's classic ''The Once and Future King,'' a fantasy account of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. In the wavering flashlight beam, as wide-eyed owls hooted outside our tent, we learned from Merlin the sorcerer along with young Arthur how to turn ourselves into fish and falcons.

The joys and benefits of reading aloud to children are well established. The delight of story listening, the stimulation of imagination, the expansion of vocabulary, the humanness of a good book brought to life - all nurture growing minds.

What most of us forget is that reading aloud is for everyone, not just children. Actually, we discovered this indirectly. In our compulsion to carry as little on our backs as possible on the trail, we took only one book. So we had to share it by reading aloud. It was one of the best discoveries we ever made.

Since then we've read aloud regularly to each other at home. Sometimes my husband will read to me while I'm cooking dinner; sometimes I read to him while he's washing the dishes. Other times it's just before we go to sleep.

Why do we like it so much? Because it fires our imagination and takes us away from the routines of everyday life. We all need to escape the humdrum of scrubbing kitchen floors, mowing the lawn, cooking, and ironing. Unlike television, a book can take you where you want to go at your own speed. A book invites you to join in instead of sit by. You become part of a book in order for it to become alive. When you read aloud to each other, the drama and involvement double the enjoyment.

A bonus in all this is that reading aloud to each other forms a bond between yourselves and your children as well. When children hear their parents reading aloud to each other, it increases their own enthusiasm for reading aloud. They hear good writing being spoken and good stories taking form in the oral tradition of storytelling. This can only heighten their awareness of books and, if they have brothers and sisters, encourage them to read aloud among themselves.

What to read is as vast as your local library: plays, poetry, essays, short stories, magazine articles, mysteries, novels. Don't forget children's stories. They're timeless and can be fun to read aloud yourselves. Take a trip back into your own childhood with ''Treasure Island'' or ''Alice in Wonderland.'' We enjoyed reading the ''Rutabaga Stories,'' by Carl Sandburg, a story a night.

We also find that varying the level never lets our interest wane. It's rewarding to choose a variety of styles of writing and depths of content. If you like short stories, you can always pick one by John Cheever or James Thurber. Every once in a while we find a New Yorker magazine short story that we read aloud instead of watching another silly TV situation comedy.

By the time we reached Connecticut on the Appalachian Trail, we had finished ''The Sword in the Stone.'' Then we picked a volume of poetry by Robinson Jeffers because it was the slimmest we could find. (Let's hope that you won't have the same criterion for selection.) We enjoyed the poems, and now we read all kinds - humorous verse by Ogden Nash and Edward Lear, narrative poems by Robert Frost, classics like Coleridge's ''Ancient Mariner.''

Anthologies of short stories and poems are good sources to have on your own bookshelf. This way, when you're in the mood for a Eudora Welty short story instead of a Hemingway, you have it handy. We use ''Short Story Masterpieces'' and just finished reading ''Virga Vay & Allan Cedar,'' by Sinclair Lewis. It was a comparatively brief story and right for the time we felt like reading aloud. Other times we've read longer stories. That's one of the benefits of anthologies. You may pick and choose stories to fit your time slot or your mood. Also, if you especially enjoy a previously unknown author in an anthology, you can search for more of that author's writing.

Reading aloud can heighten holidays, making them fuller and more enjoyable. And as the years go by, the tradition of reading the same story adds to the anticipation of the holiday.

Every Christmas Eve we read Dylan Thomas's hauntingly poetic ''A Child's Christmas in Wales.'' We have friends who have read Charles Dickens's ''A Christmas Carol'' aloud for 43 Christmases. Now an extended family of acquaintances come every year to their home to hear the bewitching story read aloud in two installments. Such stories never lose their appeal when they're tied to holidays as family traditions.

We find that plays are good to take along on vacations. Even if you aren't a stage-center thespian, you can still have great fun hamming it up. Once, in the Maine sunset on a screened porch, we read Oscar Wilde's ''The Importance of Being Earnest.'' Two visiting teen-agers joined in and we all had a marvelous time.

This is one of the rewards of adults reading aloud. Pretty soon children and teen-agers can't help hearing and seeing the fun you're having. Before long the whole family is involved. Reading aloud teaches you how to listen and imagine, and most of all, to be together.

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