On Reading Aloud
February 2, 2021
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!
We’d love to hear how it goes!