On Reading Aloud

When I was tiny, my mom read to me all the time. Roald Dahl’s The Witches, compendiums of world mythologies, a green heavy collection of Arthurian legends that I… borrowed… from my grandmother’s personal library. Before I could read the words myself, I’d follow her finger along the page.

Even after I could read, I still loved to hear others read aloud. My mom, my teachers, the occasional storytellers or authors brought into school assemblies. 

There’s something about hearing the words. I’ve always been obsessed with stories, and with books in particular. And there’s something powerful about reading aloud.

When you grow up, it’s so strangely easy to stop doing the things you love.

And for a long time, I let reading aloud fall by the wayside.

Nevermind that my favorite English classes in high school were the ones where we used class time to read scenes from the plays we were studying. (Despite being really shy, I always volunteered to read. I’ll never forget, me and this guy that I barely knew, Cliff, did almost all the reading, and I want to give him a retroactive high-five for bringing The Heidi Chronicles to life in Mrs. Ambler’s American Lit class.) Or that I listened to the entirety of His Dark Materials on actual CDs while doing my hated math homework.

My theory for why we stop reading aloud is because it’s become associated so strongly with children. It’s almost a cliche to talk about how important it is to read with kids – just like making sure they brush their teeth and eat an occasional vegetable. So when you grow up, no more stories. At least, not unless you have kids and a corresponding short window in while reading aloud is encouraged.

Just like fairy tales are (supposedly) for little kids, so is reading aloud. 

You already know where this is going, right? 

Of course, fairy tales aren’t just for children, and neither is reading aloud.

There’s a whole history of adults reading aloud. If you came to Brittany’s and my recent Profs & Pints talk about French salons (you can catch the replay here if you’re interested!), you already know there was a whole culture built around writing fairy tales and reading them to friends in literary clubs. In Victorian England, there was a vogue for telling ghost stories around the Christmas season. Adults all over the world, at different times and places, have created community and strengthened connections through reading to one another. 

I fell back into reading out loud because of a bad internet connection and the world’s tiniest kitchen.

Jared (my now-husband) and I were staying in an AirBnB in London. It was pouring, the internet wasn’t quite good enough to stream anything, and the kitchen was so narrow that you practically had to hold your breath to squeeze past the other person.

So we pulled up Theodora Goss’ short story “The Mad Scientist’s Daughter” on our phones and took turns reading it out loud while the other person chopped onions.

Since then, we’ve read Naomi Novak’s Uprooted, Zen Cho’s The Sorcerer to the Crown, the entire Harry Potter series, and about a billion other books. Jared read Poe’s “Nevermore” at my dad’s birthday party, and I read Algernon Blackwood’s “The Kit Bag” to his family last New Year’s Eve.

I’ve become a much more confident reader. All this practice helped me really go for it when I read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” during Haunted, our Halloween extravaganza, last October. And I loved reading all the comments and seeing how everyone was getting swept up in the story together. 

It’s pure magic when you’re reading a book and the world of the story comes to life in your head. There’s nothing like it.

And it’s a different kind of magic to hear a story read aloud. For it to come to life through the voice of the reader and for everyone in the room (or on Zoom!) to be in the story together.

If any of this resonates for you – if you loved hearing stories as a child, or reading to your own kids, or listening to audiobooks, or had a blast a Haunted – try reading out loud this winter. Read to your housemates or to a friend over Zoom or to your cat!

A still from a favorite film of ours,
Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain

We’d love to hear how it goes!

Comments

  1. Lauren Reynolds

    I have mixed feelinsg about “reading aloud”–while i love doing it for my kids at the library where i work: doing story time is my favorite thing ever, I always loved listening to stories outloud–ever since i was a kid, so much so that actual reading I couldn’t get into the story, all throughout high school I would skim through books than actually enjoy them…then i discovered audiobooks and so many books i WANTED to read, but really never had the time for opened up to me and now so many of those books are my absolute favorites and have a home in my personal collection. Doing this also REALLY helped me in college when I discovered, as an English Major I now had to actually READ the books i skimmed voer in high school (Karma is an evil genius), but it was worth it because for the first time I was able to both enjoy them with the childish wonder of reading them for the first time, and also embrace everything I was reading with the intellectual mind of an adult. I usually don’t read aloud myself but i still love having stories read to me and often times I will remaine the story and say it out loud to myself (something i used to do all the time due to my Asburger syndrome before everyone started telling me to try and “stop talking to myself outloud”…needless to say I’ve stopped trying to stop.

  2. Liz Hartmann

    I love the picture of swapping reading aloud and onion chopping in a tiny London flat in a torrent of rain. So cozy, and kind of romantic!

  3. Spikeabell

    My partner often reads aloud (poetry he says is meant to be spoken). Dougie has a good voice with a Scottish accent. Because I read fast I decided to try it with an old, old favourite and found myself putting on accents which was hilarious. I loved your reading of the Yellow Wallpaper!

  4. Jody Helme-Day

    Some of my favorite memories are of reading aloud to my daughter when she was little, every night before bed. I have not warmed to audiobooks yet, but I have listened to “sleep stories” on my Calm app to go to sleep–there is nothing more soothing than having someone tell you a story before sleep.
    And oh…you referenced one of my favorite movies of all time. So much so that when I was in Paris I made a point to take a picture of the restaurant in Montmartre where Amelie worked. <3

  5. Kathy Shimpock

    My ideal man has always been someone who who would read to me! Reading to each other is the perfect expression of love.

  6. Linda M Willson

    I love to read aloud to anyone who will listen. I volunteer to be the lector at church where I have a captive audience. Although I love to read aloud to others, I don’t care for audiobooks (although I’d like to record some). I look for opportunities to read aloud to friends and have them read to me. It’s lovely to sit in a warm room, drinking hot cocoa, and reading to a friend. When I begin to tire, I hand the book to my friend who reads to me. Nothing is more relaxing.

  7. Erin

    Love it! I’ve recently started doing this with a friend, reading short stories and poems we particularly enjoy to one another, and it’s so wonderful to hear other adults doing it to! There’s a new and different element brought to the stories when hearing them out loud, even when you’re the one doing the reading.

  8. Gayle F Cunningham

    Reading aloud makes everything come alive – and it’s a terrific tool for untangling passages you don’t really understand or trying to discover the emotions a character is experiencing in a story. For me, it’s also a tremendous help when I’m doing beta for someone. If I can hear the conversation (I do voices to keep it clear), it’s far less perplexing than reading silently can sometimes be.

    Plus? It’s FUN!!!!

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