When do people read aloud? And what is it they read when they do so?
The imminent arrival of our first child means that my wife and I are spending an inordinate amount of time asking and attempting to answer such questions as “To Snoo or not to Snoo?” On a more intellectual note, it is also focusing our minds on children’s books and the pleasures of reading aloud and being read to. I remember how my parents read Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day? to me before I could read anything myself. My old copy is around somewhere, and I need to locate it before our daughter arrives so that the tradition can continue. As for my wife, her mother kept reading to her well into her childhood: a favorite photograph shows the two of them (and the family dog) curled up together with Jane Eyre.
In the classroom, young children regularly read material out loud as they practice making sense of those symbols on the page—or on the iPad. And, indeed, as the cognitive neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene puts it in Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read (2009), “There is abundant proof that we [also] automatically access speech sounds while we read” silently. Still, from a certain age in the single digits, the practice of vocalizing what you read becomes very uncommon. This is unfortunate, for one thing because the lack of conscious attention to the sound of language is directly connected to the fact that so many people are lousy writers.
Most young people simply don’t read widely or deeply.
In my years as a professor at Princeton, I watched with alarm as the gulf grew ever greater between those college students (increasingly few) who knew how to craft vibrant sentences and paragraphs and those (increasingly many) whose command of English style was frankly shocking. One reason for this has been explored in detail by Mark Bauerlein in an excellent but depressing book published last year, The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults: most young people simply don’t read widely or deeply, which means they have startlingly little idea of great writing or of the historical and contemporary possibilities across genres. And these failings go back to the beginning. As my mother-in-law, Kari Jenson Gold, wrote in First Things nearly a quarter of a century ago, “Children need to hear beautiful language if they are to speak and write beautifully.”
Another reason for the dire state of so much that is written is that the de-emphasis on grammar in schools has had the broader consequence of de-emphasizing style. Make all the jokes you want about pedants who care about dangling modifiers and the presence or absence of serial commas, but there is a clear relationship between having a sense of linguistic structure and being an effective rhetorician. On this subject I recommend my former colleague Robert Freidin’s book Adventures in English Syntax (2020).
Language is music, or should be. In almost every class I taught, I offered the same advice: read every word, every sentence, every paragraph you write aloud; pay attention to where something sounds off and where you stumble; rewrite those parts; and repeat, over and over, until it sings. This is time-consuming: it is incompatible with dashing something off at the last minute. But do it and you will discover, I hope, that the effort pays off.
There are surely some Princetonians who offer a version of my advice, but no student ever indicated to me that anyone in the Writing Program (which runs the mandatory freshman writing seminars) or the larger Writing Center (which offers one-on-one conferences to everyone from undergraduates to faculty) remarked on the benefits of reading aloud. I find nothing about this in any easily accessible part of the webpage for either the program or the center, though there is a paragraph about reading aloud buried on page 15 of a twenty-two-page guide to Junior Papers (reasonably substantial pieces of independent work produced by third-year undergraduates) titled “Writing a JP: The Handout.”
Happily, plenty of other institutions do suggest to students that they read their own words aloud—the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for one, whose Writing Center prominently provides its own online “handout” on the subject, as well as a brief video. It is heartening to see this near the top of the document: “If you come to the Writing Center for a tutoring session, you will probably hear your tutor say, ‘We always read papers out loud—would you like to read yours, or would you like to hear me read it?’”
As I have said, adults do not usually read things aloud, but there are of course exceptions. For example, when authors give book readings, they read what’s on the page, and while they often skip around, they typically don’t ad-lib. Listening to them read their own words can be illuminating: the turns of phrase and rhythmic maneuvers of good stylists will sound just right in their voice. You can tell immediately who writes with cadence and structure in mind—who cares about semicolons and connective words, has internalized the idioms and idiolects of their characters, and knows how to elaborate content through form—and who simply bangs out words for hasty print. You do not want to attend a reading by a word-banger.
In general, though, novels, biographies, and magazine essays are like proverbial children of old: meant to be seen, not heard. But what about the practice of reading material off the page that is in the first place intended to be taken in by ear?
Professors and other pundits are rarely compelling when they read their lectures directly from sheets in front of them on a podium—sheets that get rattier year after unrevised year, and with the unchanging jokes written out. Yes, really good public speakers and really good preachers can successfully read verbatim from a manuscript or a teleprompter, but they are unlikely to win over their audience if the words are prepackaged. What they say must come from the heart and fit the circumstances: what the occasion is, who’s in the audience, how the room is configured.
Remember that the words “style” and “stylus” are related.
Anyone who has ever heard an academic conference paper delivered in absentia—this happens most often when a scholar is unable to attend and asks a colleague to read it in his or her stead—will know what I mean. Even when the paper is good, it sounds off in someone else’s voice because style is personal. The sentences I write don’t sound as good in your mouth for much the same reason that your shirt doesn’t quite fit on me. Remember that the words “style” and “stylus” are related, both having to do with rhetoric: a Latin stilus is a pointy writing instrument.
A genre that falls between a conventional written essay and a sermon is the bench opinion. Thankfully, the Supreme Court has now resumed its pre-pandemic practice of reading opinions from the bench. While justices are free to summarize their views with rhetoric different from what is contained in their “slip” opinions, when they do choose to speak, they usually take phrases and sections from what they wrote, even if they do not read their opinions aloud in full. With dissents in particular, the rhetoric employed in oral delivery is often barbed and in the unmistakable voice, be it erudite or colloquial, of the justice who is speaking. On this subject see Christine M. Venter’s fascinating 2021 study in the Wake Forest Law Review of the bench rhetoric of two very different justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia. Perhaps Yale Law School, which at the end of February invited the RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant Robin Fierce to read three works, including Ibram X. Kendi’s Antiracist Baby, will also make sure to teach its students how to recognize and themselves compose elegant and meaningful legal arguments and opinions.
Reading and rereading your own words aloud so often that you commit them to memory, or nearly so, makes an easy pairing with what is, at least in conservative circles, a more regularly discussed way of improving the education of the young: memorizing the words of others. As we all know, progressive education has largely done away with memorization on the grounds that rote learning is stultifying. (We still expect significant verbal memorization from thespians, including young ones—though not from anyone else.) But people who care about the cultivation of learning and tradition do from time to time call for the reintroduction of memorized poetry into the curriculum, the benefits of which Catherine Robson explores in Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem (2012), a monograph that considers pedagogical recitation in Britain and America from 1875 through the 1950s. Look at the curriculum for classical schools and you will almost always see memorization front and center, which is just one of many reasons to cheer for their burgeoning success.
In a lyrical review of Robson published in The New Yorker just over a decade ago, Brad Leithauser speaks of the first poem he “mastered” as a child, Tennyson’s “The Eagle,” as “a literal part of me.” More recently, we have Mark Bauerlein’s plea in the December 2022 issue of First Things for teachers and mentors to “bring memorization back into your kids’ lives”—an essay in which he describes eloquently what it does for a sixteen-year-old to know Tennyson’s “Ulysses” by heart. And then there is Douglas Murray’s inaugural column in Bari Weiss’s Free Press this past February, which tells the story of Pasternak’s public recitation of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30 in Moscow in 1937. Read Murray’s brief account and chills will go up and down your spine.
Another poetic way to improve pedagogy as well as the good adult life has now been advanced by Arthur Brooks in his Valentine’s Day column for The Atlantic: read poetry aloud to your loved ones. In his words,
Put together all the science, and you’ll arrive at the perfect Valentine’s Day gift: Read your partner poetry of love while holding their hand, until they fall asleep. It requires no money, no trips to the store, no reservations. You don’t even have to be creative and write your own love poems; just rely on the greats.
The advice goes well beyond romantic couples:
[R]eading to children can have a powerful effect on bonding. Levels of oxytocin, often called the “love hormone” . . . have been found to rise in children when they are told stories.
Bauerlein, Murray, and Brooks all concentrate on poetry, whether its memorization, its recitation, or both at the same time. But it is a mistake to think only of Shakespeare and Tennyson and Eliot. In our house, for example, my family goes around the table reading aloud the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July and Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation on the fourth Thursday in November. The fact is that speech of all kinds is intimate. When you read out loud “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America . . . ,” you will stumble here and there because the words aren’t your own, but you should try to make them yours to as great an extent as possible. When you read out loud your own words, however, you really shouldn’t stumble—because they are yours, through and through.
Before the early Middle Ages, the normal way to read in the Western world was aloud.
Before the early Middle Ages, the normal way to read in the Western world was aloud—the normal way for the lucky few who were literate, that is. Indeed, there is a curiously widespread belief that silent reading was not merely rare but nearly unknown until the late fourth century A.D. (Curious because, although it is repeated over and over in books, articles, and blogs, it is false: Bernard Knox demonstrated this in 1968; A. K. Gavrilov and Myles Burnyeat added further evidence decades later.) The passage to which people invariably turn to justify this belief appears in Book 6 of the Confessions: Aurelius Augustinus (a teacher of rhetoric and the future St. Augustine) makes a point to depict Aurelius Ambrosius (the bishop of Milan and the future St. Ambrose) in A.D. 384 as reading books uox autem et lingua quiescebant . . . et aliter numquam, “while his voice and tongue stayed still . . . and never in any other way.”
There is some controversy over what exactly Augustine meant to convey with this portrait, as well as debate over the force and extent of the positive evidence for silent reading in antiquity, from Aristophanes in the fifth century B.C. to Ptolemy in the second century A.D. But what is not in doubt is what happened in a garden in Milan some two years after Augustine met Ambrose, in August 386. In one of the most famous and moving conversion scenes in all of literature, found in Book 8 of the Confessions, Augustine hears a child chant tolle lege, tolle lege (“Take up and read, take up and read!”), turns as a result to Romans 13:13–14, and reads the words of the apostle Paul about concupiscence in silentio—“silently.”
The advantages of reading without making noise are many. In most parts of most libraries, for instance, it is evident that quiet should reign. (At least it is evident to me: the world is bleak when—to quote a “former teen librarian” on the website Book Riot in the perfervid month of July 2020—many libraries “in the last few decades have prided themselves on no longer being quiet places” on the grounds that quiet is white-supremacist.) But there are also many contexts in which reading aloud reaps rewards. Tolle recita, tolle recita.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 9, on page 77
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