Join us on a fascinating adventure through the rich history of reading aloud, and meet us in the present day, when we’ve never needed the wellbeing benefits more
Reading aloud is an activity we might assume is just for young children who can’t read themselves. However, when my 10-year-old daughter recently asked me to read a book to her one evening, I realised that there is something more to it.
She has an Audible library packed with books to choose from, and a bookshelf full of her own books. But, that night, she chose me. She likes the way I do the voices, and we both enjoyed the time bonding and connecting together.
In a world where we have access to an infinite amount of audiobooks at the click of a button, the idea of reading to each other might seem incredibly old-fashioned, and it is! In fact, it has a very rich history. In philosopher St Augustine’s Confessions, written around 400 AD, he reflects on the reading habits of Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan.
“When Ambrose used to read, his eyes were drawn through the pages, while his heart searched for its meaning; however, his voice and tongue were quiet. Often when we were present – for anyone could approach him and it was not his habit that visitors be announced to him – we saw him reading in this fashion, silently and never otherwise.”
The Bishop’s silent habits were considered an unusual anomaly. In Saint Augustine’s era, reading aloud was the way to do it.
While silent reading gradually caught on as time went by, reading aloud was still common. Prior to a world of television, radio, and internet, reading aloud was a source of entertainment, particularly when not everyone was literate. It was part of daily life, in people’s homes, or at the local pub. In the diary of Samuel Pepys, written in the 1660s, Pepys recalls his domestic life, reading aloud to his wife in the evenings, and laughing together about a book that was ‘sillily writ’. On one occasion, he befriends a woman in a carriage and persuades her to read to him. When his wife was upset with him, talking, listening, and reading aloud were how they made up.
Today, in an age of distraction, we might put on an audiobook while loading the dishwasher, or to pass the time while driving. In these moments our attention is split, the clatter of dirty dishes interrupting the voices, or the honking of horns, a red light, and the frustration we feel during drives. There’s a whole cornucopia of sensory input demanding our attention.
But when we listen to a loved one, it’s not just that we get to hear their voice. We see their mannerisms and facial expressions as they read the story. It is a multi-sensory experience that involves sight, sound, and even touch if we snuggle close together. This allows us to truly rest in the moment, our attention on a single point of focus rather than being called in dozens of different directions.
While researching this article, I heard from many adults who enjoy reading aloud to their adult loved ones. They reported enjoying spending time together, sharing what they are reading with each other, and that it was a more intimate activity than simply watching TV. Adults enjoyed the conversations reading together inspires, and learned more about each other and the world through their loved one’s choices of books.
Modern habits can become ingrained, and it might seem strange to pick up a book and read it to an adult loved one. If you’ve never tried it before, it doesn’t have to be the chapter of a whole book, but could be a snippet from a magazine, newspaper, or anything that feels interesting and relevant to share. A friend recently came to visit and she brought with her a story from the Guardian by Hannah Bourne-Taylor. Bourne-Taylor, the author of the memoir, Fledgling, adopted a baby bird that nested in her hair for nearly three months. It transfixed our whole family, both young and old.
You could ask someone to read to you, or take turns. You could start a reading-aloud book group, where each week people gather interesting short snippets; a poem, an extract from a book, or a story from a newspaper supplement – maybe even this very article. Flash fiction, stories of 750 words or less, are perfect for those new to the format of listening to stories. Perhaps there are local author events, where writers read aloud, and offer the opportunity to hear the words on the page, exactly as they were intended to sound.
Reading, perhaps surprisingly, also comes with many physical benefits. One study found that reading for 30 minutes lowered blood pressure, heart rate, and feelings of psychological distress just as effectively as yoga. When we reinstate reading as a social activity to share with others, we help to create a community where these benefits can be shared.
A good book is like setting off on a long journey – we don’t know exactly where it will take us. When we invite others along, we may find ourselves branching off in different directions, learning more about the world, real or imaginary – and, most magically, about each other.