On the Great Joy of Reading Aloud
If I didn’t have so many kids, my literary life might have been different. I might have written a novel, gotten a PhD, or watched a lot more literary Netflix. But one thing would have been missing from my book life—I never would have realized what a great joy it is to read a novel aloud. Even better, to an excited (sometimes jumping on the couch, howling, smacking their faces, begging for one more chapter) audience.
As an adolescent babysitter, I read plenty of picture books aloud. I don’t remember much about the experience. I don’t even remember much about the experience of reading picture books to my own kids. (Although, to be fair, their baby years have mostly disappeared into a black hole of insomniac forgetfulness.)
The first novel I read to my eldest—when he was four or five—was Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. We were living in Cairo, and I remember the bed we snuggled up in and how this was a time just for us. It wasn’t “quality time” with lego blocks or homework or waiting p-a-a-a-atiently for him to measure a cup of flour. This was time we both enjoyed. Equally.
During my eldest’s elementary years, we read dozens of books together. Particular highlights were The Lord of the Rings books (including outliers like The Adventures of Tom Bombadil), Octavia Butler’s Kindred, and Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books. Then, as he reached middle school, he wandered off into his own silent book world.
Fortunately, I have many, many (well, two) more children. The middle child and I read all the Harry Potter books to each other, and we’re currently on the last of the Wings of Fire series. Although we’ve also enjoyed audiobooks together—such as the Inkheart series and When the Sea Turned to Silver—the enjoyment of performing the books adds an entirely new dimension.
Coming back into fashion?
A. J. O’Connell has written about why her family reads The Hobbit every winter. She also suggests holiday read-aloud parties that sound fantastic. It might be difficult to maneuver through friends’ wide-ranging tastes, although probably no harder than creating a book club.
There are a number of apparent neurological benefits to reading aloud. It’s good for students and language learners. And there’s also a suggestion that it improves relationships.
In 2013, The Guardian suggested reading aloud was coming back into fashion. That might be an overstatement. But in our family’s life, it fills an emotional and entertainment niche that nothing else does.