No skipping, no cutting to the chase

Former Prime Minister Jacinda Arden enjoys the act of reading aloud. PHOTO: NEW ZEALAND HERALD
Former Prime Minister Jacinda Arden enjoys the act of reading aloud. PHOTO: NEW ZEALAND HERALD
Two weeks ago, I found myself sitting on a dilapidated deck chair in a rather muddy field at Shakespeare camp in Stratford-upon-Avon, listening to an octogenarian read aloud from Macbeth.

The marquee was damp and crowded, and I felt somewhat grimy and hungover on account of the myriad gins I had consumed at the pub the night before. Had you given me a copy of the play to read silently, I might have dozed off.

Yet I was transfixed by the older gentleman’s reading — the fervour and fury in his voice as he breathed life into the timeless words of the Bard, transporting our soggy, tired selves to the eerie, mist-shrouded moors of Scotland.

I have long thought of reading as a solitary, silent occupation, in part due to the teasing I encountered throughout my childhood for always carrying a book around with me. When the schoolyard was particularly noisy, when I felt lonely or friendless, or when I had finished my maths worksheets, I would open a novel and happily disappear into another world.

But reading has not always been silent; there once was a time when reading was, for the most part, a louder, sociable activity. Reading out loud to an audience is a social act with a rich history.

Before the advent of widespread literacy, oral storytelling was the primary way to pass down cultural knowledge, myths, and legends from one generation to the next.

Dr Paul Saenger contends that reading aloud was a practical requirement in ancient times due to the absence of word spacing in manuscripts until the late 7th century AD (ThankGodforthespacebar).

In his autobiography, St Augustine expresses surprise over St Ambrose’s unusual habit of reading silently.

"When he read," Augustine remarked in his Confessions, "his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still." (I can’t help but wonder how noisy and chaotic libraries must have been back in the day).

And in his book A History of Reading, Alberto Manguel points out the primordial languages of the Bible — Aramaic and Hebrew — do not differentiate between the act of reading and the act of speaking: "they name both with the same word."

Scholars tell us the inception of silent reading can be traced back to the establishment of standardised writing techniques and the introduction of the printing press. As literacy proliferated and access to privately owned books became more widespread, the act of reading underwent a profound transformation.

It evolved from communal group readings into a solitary and quiet pursuit. Consequently, scholarly endeavours transitioned from being communal, public, and at times subject to censorship, to becoming individual, private, and occasionally contentious undertakings.

As Manguel points out, during the 18th century in Europe, the emerging habit of solitary bedtime reading was for some time viewed as perilous and morally questionable.

Well before the dangers of damaging one’s eyesight by reading under the covers by torchlight, our 18th-century ancestors were a wee bit anxious about the risk of fires sparked by bedside candles.

Might it be that there were bigger concerns at play? Some contemporary critics argue the moral uproar over novels was partially rooted in the fear that readers, particularly women, might elude familial and communal responsibilities, breaching moral boundaries through their private immersion in the imaginative realms of books. (Perhaps this is where I am going wrong; perhaps my unmarried, childless state may be blamed on my voracious novel-reading).

I can’t help but feel that something vital is lost when a text is read only silently by oneself. Nietzsche would agree with me. In Beyond Good and Evil, he bemoans the loss of "crescendos, inflections, variations of tone and changes of tempo in which the ancient public world took pleasure".

Reading out loud can also be a beautifully sociable activity — one that unites speaker and listener in the mutual appreciation of literature.

Long before the ceaseless barrage of TikTok, Netflix and other ready distractions, reading out loud was a way for (predominantly middle class) families to relax and entertain each other in the long winter evenings. It could be a spectator sport, a way to flirt, flatter, or educate oneself and one’s companions.

For many of us, our passion for stories blossomed as we absorbed the narratives and anecdotes shared by our elders during our childhood years. In my childhood, I loved it when Dad read aloud to me — not just because he opened to me new worlds beyond my own reading comprehension — but because these reading sessions were times we spent together, just the two of us. Away from the hustle and bustle of my brothers and sisters, I could curl up with Dad and bask in his undivided attention.

Of course, not all reading aloud is entertaining or desirable, as any school child might attest.

I am reminded of a hilarious scene in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice wherein the insufferable Mr Collins takes it upon himself to read James Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women to his cousins, "with very monotonous solemnity".

But there are numerous individual benefits to reading aloud, even for the adult reader.

For example, vocalising a text enables the reader to listen to herself speaking, heightening awareness of her pronunciation, and aiding in pinpointing areas where she might stumble over words, employ improper intonation, or misapply stress patterns.

Reading aloud can also help one speak more expressively by practising and modulating one’s tone, volume, and pace. With all this comes a boost in confidence regarding public speaking and communicating effectively. I’ll make Shakespearean actors of you yet.

"Reading aloud," as essayist Anne Fadiman puts it, "means no skipping, no skimming, no cutting to the chase."

How often have you found your eyes glazing over as you read and re-read the same paragraph, willing your brain to take in the damned information, to no avail? Good news! Reading out loud helps with comprehension and retention.

Extensive research confirms the "production effect," namely the memory improvement resulting from physically vocalising words. Consider this: when you sing songs, your recall of the lyrics tends to be more robust compared to simply listening. Childhood nursery rhymes likely remain in your memory because they were spoken aloud and repeated, not read silently.

So, do me a favour, and pick up something today to read out loud. Find a funny poem, a Bible passage, or an anecdote from one of my fellow columnists, and read the words out loud.

See how they roll around in your mouth; savour the delicious assonance and alliteration, delight in rhyme, the buzz and hiss of onomatopoeia, and the lyricism of the spoken word. You won’t regret it.

 - Jean Balchin, a former English student at the University of Otago, is studying at Oxford University after being awarded a Rhodes Scholarship.