The Joys of Reading Aloud
Not Just For Kids
HAVERHILL, MASS. — Almost every other night for the past 12 years, Michelle Lair has climbed into bed, grabbed author Stephen King's latest novel, and begun reading aloud a blood-curdling tale to her husband, Abbott.
On nights when their mood shifts, Michelle eschews Mr. King's supernatural stories to read out loud a Bible psalm. Or it might be a poem, or currently - the novel "Time and Again" by Jack Finney.
While reading, Abbott often stops his wife to discuss plot or a character's motivation. Whatever they read together, the Lairs sleep just fine after lights out, half an hour later.
But they confess it can leave them antsy at work the next day - eager to get back to creepy cemeteries, strange happenings, and the next plot twist.
"We both come from families that love to read," says Michelle, an office receptionist in Minneapolis. "Reading out loud brings us closer together. We can take this journey together to a whole other world. It's fun."
Packing a book for a trip or leaving a small stack of good reads for quiet time on the bedside table is pretty standard fare for many people. But at least some adults are dipping into books a different way - through the ancient art of reading aloud.
Alberto Manguel writes in his "A History of Reading" that reading out loud was the norm for mutual enjoyment and self-edification until about AD 383. That was the year St. Augustine observed that Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, read silently to himself. Today, that once-strange silent tradition prevails with the vast majority of readers.
Robert Penn Warren, the first poet laureate of the United States, used to read aloud to
his wife, says Jim Trelease, author of "The New Read-Aloud Handbook," which discusses techniques for reading aloud to children.
"These people [who read aloud] are reading 'evangelists,' " he says. "They just can't keep it to themselves." When parents or grandparents read to each other children take note and want to do it too, he says.
There are signs that reading-aloud evangelists are making some audible (if not exactly voluble) converts from the ranks of long-time silent readers.
William Hunt still remembers the first time his wife, Joan, suggested they read aloud together on a Sunday afternoon in the first year of their marriage. The book was "84 Charing Cross Road," by Helene Hanff, a compendium of letters to a book buyer from a friend. Mr. Hunt, a computer consultant who savors high velocity Tom Clancy or Robert Ludlum novels, was stunned.
"I don't remember if I rolled my eyes, but I found it hard to be enthusiastic," he says of that fateful moment 15 years ago. "I thought reading was a solitary act, like brushing your teeth. I couldn't see how reading out loud could be enjoyable at all."
He has since changed his mind. Greatly. In fact, the Toronto couple have read out loud at least 50 books (it could be 50 percent more, he says) so far. They are just finishing the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the British creator of Sherlock Holmes.
It is hard to tell if there are more or fewer read aloud enthusiasts today than in years past. A spokesman for the American Publisher's Association in Washington knew of no studies of adult reading habits, though many studies note the positive impact of reading aloud to children.
Certainly reading aloud was something adults did regularly at the turn of the century, if authors like E.M. Forster are to be believed. In Forster's novel "A Room With a View," prim Cecil courts Lucy Honeychurch by pursuing her about her garden spouting passages from a romance novel.
Courting and communicating ideas with a loved one are still prime motivations for adults to read aloud to one another, according to several afficionados.
Mary Szybist, who teaches poetry and creative writing to high school students in Iowa City, Iowa, says she enjoys reading aloud poetry of all sorts to the man she is dating, Jerry Harp, a graduate student in English.
"We are both writers and teachers, so we're involved in the medium," she says. "Mostly we read things out loud that take just a few settings. Poetry is our mainstay. But we read stories, short novellas, too."
She began reading aloud while studying poetry. It spilled over into her prose pleasure reading. She has recently incorporated prose and poetry read aloud as a key element in her classes.
"To put something aloud in the air is to make reading a shared experience," she says. "A lot of it has to do with taking delight in the contour and rhythm of poem or sharing a story out loud, which is a very old form of entertainment and learning."
Ms. Szybist says she and Mr. Harp read the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop or Toni Morrison's "Beloved" in the living room of her home or under a big tree. And on long car trips. The lips-visibly-moving audible reader crowd readily joins the books-on-tape commuter clan on the nation's highways, she and others say.
One couple plowed through William Shirer's tome "Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" on a number of trips to visit in-laws. Another couple reads mostly Dave Barry anthologies and long pieces from "The Atlantic" magazine while on the road.
"The world needs extroverted readers of all kinds," Mr. Trelease says. "They're like a commercial for the joy of reading."
Hunt, the Toronto computer consultant, concurs. But he believes the biggest benefit is family communication. Husbands and wives have to spend a lot of time talking about mundane daily matters, he says, whereas reading out loud is a a rare opportunity to talk about ideas.
"Like watching a sunset, it's so much more enjoyable to do it with someone else," he says. "You turn to them and say isn't this great. I never expected it to be that way, but it is."
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