Sonic Dimensions of Reading (Or, Reading As a Group Activity)

Today is World Listening Day. I plan on doing some active listening today and blogging about it for Friday, but for today’s post I wanted to share an article I read a few weeks ago about reading out loud. It seemed pertinent to this day.

Late last month The New Yorker ran a short piece titled “Let’s All Read Aloud” in the “Book Bench” section of its website. The piece mentions how some people talk about the benefits of reading out loud in pedagogical terms (children, ESL students), but how we never address the benefits of reading out loud for adults. According to author Flora Armetta, the habit of reading out loud is one that some couples practice, and she says it may be the reason why those couples are so happy. I am not sure about how reading out loud improves your relationships, but I agree with Armetta that people should try more often to read out loud. Why should reading be a one-person activity?

I encountered reading out loud in my home when I was growing up. My dad, who reads the local paper every day, makes this daily activity a social activity. Oftentimes he will share with whoever is sitting next to him something that stands out to him, or he will comment on something that appeared in the paper. He also does this when he is reading a new book. For him, reading is not a solitary activity. He revels in sharing what he reads and what he learns with us. As a young adult I would roll my eyes and pray he’d finish soon, but once I left home for school I treasured those moments at the table. When he reads out loud gives us a chance to discuss local politics, culture, entertainment gossip, you name it. It’s one of the sweet memories I have of my home.

In opposition to that, in graduate school (or college, period) reading is a solitary activity. Sure, you discussed the readings in class. But you read at home, in your office, or at the library (among other places). Preferably you did this quietly. I never connected what I saw at home with what I encountered in the classroom. Armetta mentions that one of the few ways we encounter reading in public is in the guise of authors’ readings. Outside of authors’ readings or poetry slams, I always saw reading as an intellectual activity that took place in silence. Could it be because the kind of reading we do in class does not lend itself to reading out loud? Is it because it takes too long? Maybe it’s because we relate reading out loud to not understanding the reading? I wonder what it would be like to teach a course where students actually get to read together, out loud, and discuss the piece in real time.

Interestingly, writing center theory proposes that tutors read a tutee’s paper out loud so that the student gets a better grasp of what they’re trying to say and to notice mistakes they have made. A lot of composition instructors, like myself, will institute this in peer review; my experience is that students are mortified of this exercise. (I can’t blame them; I recently had a tutor read the intro to Chapter 2 of my dissertation and I almost melted in my seat. That’s how mortified I was.) But the goals behind reading out loud a student’s paper may also hold up when you read something for pleasure out loud: it can give you a better understanding of what you are reading. You can also appreciate the artistry of a sentence when you take the time to enunciate every sound in every word in the sentence. Reading out loud can become a way to appreciate writing as a work of art.

I know some people are not keen on reading out loud; my boyfriend has told me on more than one occasion, “I’m gonna read it later!” or “Email it to me!” if I read parts of an article I find interesting. We read tweets out loud to each other all the time though. So why people feel uncomfortable? Maybe it has to do with the kind of reading. I for one don’t read out loud unless I’m at home with my dad, I’m confused, or I’m teaching. (I like to get my students in touch with writing outside of guidelines for papers, and reading texts out loud is part of that.) But I love the idea, and I hope that some day my daughter and I can sit at the table together and share what we’re reading out loud.

Want to know what my favorite part of the piece was? It was this sentence:

a pair…saves the best sentences from their recent reading for each other, to read aloud again together when they have a chance—it’s a bit like bringing home flowers for your sweetheart, but it lasts a lot longer.

Call me a nerd, but I wouldn’t mind sentence bouquets.

Do you ever read out loud? Do you remember moments where you did? How did that change your appreciation of the text?