My parents read to me from the time I was a baby in the crib, until long after I was able to read quietly by myself. They enjoyed it even when, as a tyrannical four year old, I insisted they read me Goldilocks and The Three Bears every night for a year. ‘It was a good way for us to communicate to you,’ my Dad tells me. ‘Reading aloud made you feel safe and comfortable.’
Most of us are aware that reading aloud to children is beneficial for their growth and education. Numerous scientific studies have shown that it promotes the development of literacy, imagination, curiosity, and activates areas of the child’s brain ‘known to support mental imagery and narrative comprehension’.
And yet, while it’s common for parents to read to their children (91 per cent when their kids are under the age of six, according to a recent survey by children’s book publisher Scholastic), comparatively few adults read aloud to one another on a regular basis.
Until recently, I rarely read aloud. My teenage years were spent crouched protectively over novels that I would demolish privately. I relished the time alone a book promised me. It wasn’t until my early twenties, when I began to write seriously, that I found myself reading my own sentences to sound out their structure, their rhythm. I wanted to know how they felt on my tongue. It’s a habit I’ve maintained, but, with the exception of my own work, I have spent my entire adult life reading books in silence and solitude.
One month ago my partner and I began to read aloud to one another. We both love to read, but wanted to spend our free time in shared pursuits. One day, talking about Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things and carried away by the holy spirit of literary evangelism, I offered to read it aloud so we could experience it together.
Once started, we couldn’t stop. Reading together in bed is now the last thing we do every night before sleep. Taking turns depending on who has a sore throat/is most tired/feels like it, we lie together and read and listen, until one of us falls asleep. Our voices are softer than those we use throughout the day. We are measured, calm. We read slowly. We don’t miss any words. Sometimes the things we read are sad, and whoever is reading will find that their voice breaks on the sentence, and sometimes whoever is listening cries into the neck of the other. We are both surprised to find that we are easily, visibly moved. Sometimes we stop and laugh, or look up words we don’t know (‘sclerotic’ being a recent example). But we keep reading. It is hypnotic, intense and, without a doubt, one of the more extraordinarily intimate experiences of my adult life. So why has it taken me so long to make reading aloud habitual?
Despite its seeming rarity, many therapists espouse the practice of couples reading aloud together. Ella Berthoud, a bibliotherapist with The School of Life was quoted in The Independent as saying, ‘It can […] help couples communicate and understand each other better, as well as show new ways to share leisure time.’
It’s a fairly obvious statement. A couple who reads together will hopefully find material to discuss, and will therefore discover more about the opinions and thoughts of their partner, which in turn will create an increased sense of familiarity and understanding.
But newspapers are also full of things to discuss, and I know many people who will happily chirp away about Making a Murderer, or their children, or their dining experiences ad nauseum. What is it about reading aloud that promotes a particular kind of closeness? Why might reading together be preferable to other activities done in common? Berthoud hints at it when she says, ‘It is so much better than vegging out in front of the television. It takes you to a different place.’
I think the overwhelming feeling of wellbeing and intimacy my partner and I get from reading aloud to each other comes from the magic of reading itself. The narrative transport so many of us associate with solitary reading – time distortion, the forgetting of our surroundings, total absorption into a story – also applies to reading aloud and being read to. You are taken to a different place, and you are taken there together.
You are taken to a different place, and you are taken there together.
It’s not that we, in our modern age, are suffering from a drought of storytelling. The opposite may be true. We are inundated with narratives – television, online journalism, the disjointed piecemeal narratives of social media – all competing with each other for our attention. It’s more that reading books requires the wider world of which these narratives are part to recede. It requires meditative focus and prompts contemplation and reflection in a way that other modes of storytelling do not.
And like meditation, there is an element of corporeal awareness at play. Reading aloud reinstates the physicality of language. You not only hear the words spoken by your own lips and tongue, but you feel the effort it takes to produce them in your diaphragm – there is a certain incarnation involved. As a listener, you are also aware of the reader’s body as the source of the language that is simultaneously transporting you. Say, for instance, you are lying in bed while your partner reads to you. You are aware of their breath, the resonance of their voice in their chest, the rise and fall of their lungs. No wonder so many people find the experience an erotic one. No wonder that the word so many people who read aloud return to is intimacy.
The shared meditative effects of reading together extend beyond transcendence, awareness of the physical form, and mindfulness. In 2009 the University of Sussex conducted a study that demonstrated (through the monitoring of muscle tension and heart rate) that reading is one of the most effective ways to combat stress: generally speaking, it only takes six minutes of turning pages to chill you out.
De-stressing through reading is probably why those who have a bedtime book routine are generally found to sleep better. It’s also probably why I cannot help but fall asleep on my partner as they read to me. I have never slept better. The feeling of nurture I remember from being read to as a child is no less strong as an adult. I am comforted by the sound of my loved one’s voice in the same moment I am psychologically calmed and physically cognisant.
We live in a distracted, anxious society where many of even our leisure activities are influenced by a need to keep up, stay abreast, compete and complete. Reading eliminates distraction. It takes time to read a book aloud; a ridiculous amount of time for someone accustomed to reading through sight only. But here, perhaps, lies the true appeal of shared reading. There is no competition. There is no hurry. There is little emphasis on the act of completion (something I think most booklovers, no matter how reluctant they are to admit it, pride themselves on: ‘I read a book a week for a whole year,’ ‘I can burn through a novel in a night,’) which means that the focus is always on the words as they are spoken. The slowing down of the reading process intensifies it.
It can be difficult to make time for meaningful reading in our digital age. It can be difficult to find moments of closeness uninterrupted by the usual feeds and screens of distraction. Perhaps we would all be a little better off if we read to each other as often as we read to our children. We could all do with a bedtime story every now and then.