For reading out loud: bears, salvation, love

September 03, 1995|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Three strong reasons for reading out loud occur to me. One is to discourage grizzly bears, which notoriously are almost blind, acute of hearing and shy, and most often fatally dangerous to humans who bumble across them, or are bumbled across, in silence. Second is to nourish the education and educability of children. The third is to enrich your own personal culture and possibly that of your companion or companions.

Of the three, I suppose, the first is the least frequently useful to readers of this column, though arguably more important than the others in appropriate circumstances. I will not dwell upon it.

I am ill-equipped to argue for the second point, but deferring to others with greater experience, I am convinced regularly reading to children is a Good Thing. If there were a child in my charge or proximity, reading aloud would be a high imperative, from virtually the natal instant.

How do I know this? I have read it persuasively in "The Read-Aloud Handbook," by Jim Trelease (Penguin Books. 387 pages. paperback, $12.95). It was originally published in 1979, but a substantially revised fourth edition has just been brought out.

Mr. Trelease is a True Believer, a crusader in the noblest sense. "Extensive research has proven," he writes, "that reading aloud to a child is the single most important factor in raising a reader. It is also the best kept secret in American education." From there he begins to get earnest.

Plague therapy

Sixty percent of American prison inmates are illiterate, and Mr. Trelease argues there is often, even usually, a direct causal relationship. He gives sobering - startling, sometimes terrifying - figures of the costs in wasted lives and worse that illiteracy and semi-literacy are responsible for in America. He is convinced that almost any of the victims of those plagues could have been spared if they had been read to thoughtfully as children.

His book is a powerful polemic and a fascinating study. The recounting of more than 15 years of lecturing and guiding parents and others is littered with anecdotes. If words on paper ever make you weep, these will.

But the third reason for reading aloud is the one that most intensely interests me, moves me. And among the three it may be the most neglected.

Be it among consenting adults or to children or for that matter in multigenerational household amateur theatricals, it cannot be doubted that reading aloud is a genuinely enriching cultural experience, one that is dramatically different from reading silently to oneself, for all the undoubted virtues of that.

There are two ways to do it.

One is to read out loud as an act of art. This means taking up roles, reading in contrasting voices, being, essentially, a one-person theater troupe. Not as daunting as it sounds, this is nonetheless more difficult than the alternative, which is to read aloud as a simple, unadorned act of human intercourse. You know, just read the words. (When I was a child, my father regularly did both, depending on the nature of the book.)

Either method is perfectly respectable and, once you get the momentum of it, nourishing, consciousness-opening.

For most people, there is no such thing as a "mind's ear." Most of us see things in our heads, without actual vision. But except for a tiny few people, including most music composers, who are born with orchestras and choruses bouncing around inside their crania, I believe it is very rare to hear without actual sound.

And thus the music of writing - and almost all great writing of course is intensely musical - can be found only in speaking it or hearing it aloud. You can, of course, do that for yourself and by yourself, but it works far better in good company.

Cliche cure

The process of reading aloud, even well-known works, inevitably increases your awareness of rhythm, of meter, of inflection. That in turn is very good for any writer, and for the writing of anyone, however modest their literary ambitions. (I often read my own work into a tape recorder and then listen, with printed text before me, a process I recommend as cliche-radar and flow-inducer.)

There are, of course, some books that simply defy being read aloud. Ones by earnest and often honorable authors who are devoid of musicality. One may be Theodore Dreiser. Trying to read Thomas De Quincey aloud would be to risk painful death by oxygen deprivation before reaching the end of the first full sentence.

Reading aloud, to a lone mate or companion or in a larger group - families, of course, are best - is to celebrate the experience of communal collective storytelling in the theater of the mind. That is doubtless an institution of human evolution that predated even cave-painting.

At best, reading aloud is an act of love.

But not without exception. In the last chapter of Evelyn Waugh's "A Handful of Dust," the central character, Tony Last, having been alienated by modernity, fleeing the contemporary world into the deepest jungles, happens into the compound of a fellow expatriate who owns a complete set of the works of Dickens but dTC has never learned to read. Waugh's ultimate sequel to Dante is to have poor Tony Last damned to spending the rest of eternity reading Dickens aloud to an illiterate and tyrannical lout.

Don't try that at home.

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