Reading aloud is an art. It is more than merely saying words aloud. It is breathing life into the pages of whatever you are reading. When done well, the voice brings emotion, meaning, character, and life to the words on the page. When done together with those you love, it brings connection, joy, and belonging. It becomes an art not just through the “performance” but every bit as much through the love.
As a kid I hated reading aloud. This was mostly because of being called on cold to read something in class. I had no idea what the passage was about or what strange words would jump up to make me stumble. I didn’t want my peers to laugh. I didn’t want to appear stupid. Almost as bad as being called upon cold to read was the “round robin reading” where each student took a paragraph and the reading moved to the next in line. I would count how many people there were before me and count down to the paragraph I would be reading. I would then read and reread that paragraph until my turn to read. I never heard a word of what came before. And, in my relief at being off the hook, seldom heard anything after.
I have always read every word in a text slowly and telling the story in my mind as I read. But that was internal. Reading aloud to others was out of my experience. It was in my studies in drama that I found the beauty of just the voice and the words to tell the story. Reader’s theatre can come alive for me as much as any play with a set, costumes, and props.
Within my teaching I used oral reading. I never put my students into the stress that I experienced. There were times that I asked for volunteers to read. There were times when I asked for people who wanted to take the parts in reading a play aloud – only assigning parts with one or two lines to the reluctant. I apologize to Lorraine Hansberry, Thornton Wilder, Arthur Miller, August Wilson, Henrik Ibsen, Sophocles, William Shakespeare, and any other playwright who often had their works ravaged by these acts of literary vandalism! Eagerness, self-confidence, and courage don’t always add up to meaning and riveting performance. Even if the participants were willing, it was still a cold read.
Over the years, I discovered that I loved reading aloud to my students, and they expressed how much they loved it too. I read stories, poems, articles, and entire books aloud with them. Those who had been read to as children reveled in the comfort of a fond memory. Those who hadn’t been read to found a path into stories that they hadn’t experienced before. And those who were struggling readers found the joy of story. Some were astounded because “it sounds like a story.”
I have often written and spoken about reading aloud. I, of course, espouse reading to babies, toddlers, and preschoolers. But everyone knows that they benefit from being read to. I have concentrated my efforts on continuing reading to older children. Dani (the daughter I never had) reads to my grandchildren even now that they are 14, 12, and 10. I gave Chapin a copy of Wonder – a real favorite of mine. He told me that he loved the book, but he was so glad that he had waited until his mother read it aloud with all three of them. The book, the words, the love, the family, and the closeness mingle together and become one.
All of this merely serves as an introduction to what I really wanted to write about today. I read about “Booksgiving” online this week and loved the idea. So when Dani, Chip, and the kids came for dinner on Friday night, I had books for them. I hadn’t spent lots of money or gone out to purchase the newest things hot off the presses. Frankly, I used ARCs that had been given to me for the kids (they love the sense of being the first to get a chance at a book). Dani had mentioned wanting to read a book that I found 50% off so I bought that. And then there was Chip. I had his birthday present already there and wrapped. Books, of course. They were ones that he had expressed interest in. So now I was a bit stumped. I finally settled on a book that was one of my favorites. It went against type. It went against the obvious. I gave him a collection of essays by Maya Angelou called Wouldn’t Take Nothing For My Journey Now. There is nothing “girlie” about these writings. I have shared them with others before, and I just wanted to share these favorites with him. And I had no idea why, but I thought he’d like them.
As we were having dinner, Maya Angelou’s voice and words came into our conversation. He expressed how much he loved her voice and hearing her speak and read. My spirit soared because I knew I had picked the right thing. After dinner when he opened the book, he asked, “What made you think of this for me?” I couldn’t give a concrete answer other than wanting to share a favorite. He had looked through the birthday present books and was very happy with them. But it was this book that he started reading at random places.
And that was when I was given a wonderful gift. In his deep, rich voice this man began to read aloud one of my very favorite essays from the book. From the first word of “Complaining” I settled back into my chair reveling in the sound of his voice reading the familiar words. At one point I joined him as he read, “it frazzles me up and frazzles me down.” And I smiled. A while later he read another. And then another which I didn’t remember as well sending me back to read this favorite book again.
If you have never been given a gift of story, you are really missing out. Take the time to read aloud with your family and friends. At Thanksgiving, my granddaughter Lily wanted me to read her favorite book (The Book With No Pictures by B. J. Novak) to everyone gathered. She laughed at what was coming as I turned the page, but the adults gathered around laughed and enjoyed it as well. Everyone I’ve ever read that book to has the same reaction regardless of age. I read aloud picture books over the holidays with an old friend who liked them as much as the children I would read them to in story time.
Before electronics…before television…before radio and phonographs…before all of the “advancements” that allow us to communicate with the world, people connected with the real, live folks in their lives. Look back in literature and you will read of families gathering in an evening to share. They made music together with instruments and voices. Families gathered and indulged in the joys of communal reading. I highly recommend turning off the television, putting down your phone, taking out your earplugs and joining in a story time of your own with those you love. That rich, shared time on Friday night was wonderful, inclusive, comfortable, and a moment that has settled into a warm spot in my memory. Thank you, Chip.
(Picture credit and link to a good article on reading aloud: https://www.voices.com/blog/7_ways_reading_aloud_improves_your_life/)