Reading Aloud

Marguerie Gérard, “Woman Reading in an Interior” (1795-1800)

For the past two years, I have been on my students about how they read.

Often I am convinced that they don’t, haven’t, and won’t. These students walk in after having been assigned something rather brave, rather dramatic, say Tacitus’s Agricola, which at times channels Mel Gibson, Brad Pitt, or Orlando Bloom rallying their troops with a speech tour-de-force. And yet my students, half of them it seems, say they “didn’t finish the text” (~30 pages on a week), or that it was boring (…), or that they didn’t understand what the assignment was about. Any one of these responses deeply worries me.

At the same time, I suppose I’m somewhat sympathetic. I didn’t enjoy reading at an early age — that is until I read Tolkien’s The Hobbit (for fun) and an entire world of reading opened up to me. I remember finding the dark paperback on Mrs. Bumgardner’s Books To Read shelf. Thinking this was a mistake, I seized the text, brought home the plunder, and, like Mr. Baggins, pilfered its treasures inexhaustible for that single golden cup.

Am I the best reader? No. Am I a very disciplined reader? For the most part, not at all. In fact, I often think about other matters tangential or even superfluous to the author’s words, theses, or tonal force. I am frequently set off by a word, like a note in a familiar key of a once cherished song. The sound sets off the memory, some distant, unrehearsed phrase uttered somewhere in space, like Holy Scripture, Shakespeare, favorite radio tunes, even commercials. I meditate on these ornamented fixtures, drifting off, away from the page into some other world.

[This is also how I teach, breaking in at many a time to rehearse a song or line that an uttered word set off.]

At long last, I slowly find my way back to the text. I assuredly have to backtrack, locate the author’s rhythm after finally suppressing my one and then try and move forward. Now this all may sound exhausting (and it surely is), but it’s the kind of exhaustion I enjoy, even covet, since I haven’t anything of consequence to read — certainly not an assigned reading that a professor might ask about in some midterm question.

But still, I am wildly undisciplined about finishing books. At this very moment, four different books are on my side table — a novel by Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, a book about Catholic apologetics, a book by Robert Graves about mythology, and selections from Thucydides’ History. But because nothing is pressing me to finish any one of these, I simply sample from the one before leaving it only to come days later. And while I do finish these books from time to time, it’s not in short order. I’m okay with this.

A year ago, I was listening to a lecture about Lectio Divina, a form of Christian prayer that involves reading and memorizing Sacred Scripture as a prelude to conversation with the Lord, and the abbot giving the take spent a number of minutes arguing for how the ancients and perhaps the medievals all read aloud, not silently to themselves.

The charter text for this is when Saint Augustine witnesses Saint Ambrose reading in his study:

When [Ambrose] was not engaged (which was but a little time), he either was refreshing his body with necessary sustenance, or his mind with reading. But while reading, his eyes glanced over the pages, and his heart searched out the sense, but his voice and tongue were silent. Ofttimes, when we had come (for no one was forbidden to enter, nor was it his custom that the arrival of those who came should be announced to him), we saw him thus reading to himself, and never otherwise; and, having long sat in silence (for who dared interrupt one so intent?), we were fain to depart, inferring that in the little time he secured for the recruiting of his mind, free from the clamour of other men’s business, he was unwilling to be taken off. And perchance he was fearful lest, if the author he studied should express anything vaguely, some doubtful and attentive hearer should ask him to expound it, or to discuss some of the more abstruse questions, as that, his time being thus occupied, he could not turn over as many volumes as he wished; although the preservation of his voice, which was very easily weakened, might be the truer reason for his reading to himself. But whatever was his motive in so doing, doubtless in such a man was a good one.

In my college Greek History class, I remember my professor, the late John Luster Brinkley, noting that because ancient texts were composed without spaces in between words or punctuation, the ancient readers would almost certainly sound out the text, feeling over the words and finding where one word ended and another began.

But not just with the ancients. With my own daughters, one four-years-old and the other two, I read aloud stories. What is impressive, at least to me, is that the older can with ease correct me when I miss a detail, nay, a modifier. I’ve even heard her reading to herself during car trips, even though she hasn’t formally learned to read.

[It should be noted that her ability to soak up our most fundamental Catholic prayers — the Pater Noster (Our Father), Ave Maria (Hail Mary), Saint Michael prayer, and Salve Regina (Hail Holy Queen) — is much more honed and perceptive.

It was not the tabella and stylus, id est, implements of writing in the ancient world, but, instead, the ear, tongue, and memory that were the primary tools of grammar and rhetoric student in the Classical (Greek and Roman) world.

With my student, especially in our earliest Latin sections, I note that saying the vocabulary, forms, and short sentences allow the brain (and heart) “the opportunity to know it thrice — once with the eyes, a second with the ear, and a third with the mind and its memory.

So to I have encouraged these history students to read selections aloud, and this encouragement comes with no shortage of reasons: first, reading aloud keeps one awake, at least usually; second, many of these works, especially letters and Gospels, were meant for public recitation; and lastly, because of the way in which the work was composed, id est, orally by the author and received by a small squad of scribes, the complexities of rhetoric, composition, logic, and argument were often played out aloud by the composer, often read back to make sure the turn-of-phrase or delivery of the argument was its most cogent, seductive, sympathetic, et cetera.

[It also may force them to turn off the television, take out the earbuds, and close down the laptop.]

The Hobbit, written by J.R.R. Tolkien in the 1930s for his young children, would have been read aloud to them, as all children’s stories are. If this is how we best learn — orally, audibly, and with an eye to memory. It seems fitting then that we should return to the practice and even the art of reading aloud.

Or, as I put it to my students- “of the parents who did read to you when you were children” (all hands went up!), “how many of them read to you silently?”