Iconic books are texts revered as objects of power rather than just as words of instruction, information, or insight. In religious and secular rituals around the globe, people carry, show, wave, touch and kiss books and other texts, as well as read them. This blog chronicles such events and activities. (For more about iconic books, see the links to the Iconic Books Project at left.)

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Reading Aloud

Verlyn Klinkenborg in the New York Times notes that while contemporary Americans listen to books almost as often as reading them,

But from the perspective of a reader in, say, the early 19th century, about the time of Jane Austen, there is something peculiar about it, even lonely.

In those days, literate families and friends read aloud to each other as a matter of habit

She points out that asking someone to read aloud is the best test of their understanding, and follows that with a wonderful description of how reading aloud embodies words:

Reading aloud recaptures the physicality of words. To read with your lungs and diaphragm, with your tongue and lips, is very different than reading with your eyes alone. The language becomes a part of the body, which is why there is always a curious tenderness, almost an erotic quality, in those 18th- and 19th-century literary scenes where a book is being read aloud in mixed company. The words are not mere words. They are the breath and mind, perhaps even the soul, of the person who is reading.

Klinkenborg holds out little hope that reading aloud will make a comeback, like listening has:

I suspect there is no going back. You can easily make the argument that reading silently is an economic artifact, a sign of a new prosperity beginning in the early 19th century and a new cheapness in books. The same argument applies to listening to books on your iPhone. But what I would suggest is that our idea of reading is incomplete, impoverished, unless we are also taking the time to read aloud.

Here, however, her focus on literature misleads here into drawing a false conclusion from a too limited database. Whether or not they read novels and poetry to each other, throughout history many people in many cultures have voiced aloud the words of their scriptures, laboring to pronounce unfamiliar names, archaic translations, even foreign and dead languages, and prizing the skills of those who do it well. They still do.


Matt said...

It is interesting that you posted this tonight. Just as you were writing it I was reading aloud the many Psalms, prayers, and hymns of the Orthodox Church's Order for Holy Communion. I was, as far as my eyes could tell, the only person in the room, though, by faith, there were unseen angels and saints in the room.

But before that I was reading aloud Sir J.M. Barrie's classic, Peter Pan, to my 7 year old son. And my wife and I read aloud to each other, too. I suppose I could not count the books I have read to her, but they include most of the Bible, Lord of the The Rings (I never appreciated J.R.R.T.'s poetry until I read it aloud), the Hobbit, The Wind in the Willows, many issues of the New Yorker, the Little House books, the Harry Potter books, all of Alexander McCall-Smith's novels, and a multitude more. I think, it has made my marriage stronger than it would otherwise be.

Though I can certainly read 5 or 6 times faster if I am reading silently, reading silently does not provide 1/2 the joy of reading aloud to another person.

Dr. Iccapot said...

Not so sure that "reading silently is an economic artifact, a sign of a new prosperity beginning in the early 19th century and a new cheapness in books".
Silent reading dates back to about 380 a.C., as we can read, in St. Augustine's "Confessions", the description of the Bishop of Milan, Ambrose, silent reading...