For the past few months, I have helped my friend Anna edit The Train From Greenville, her account of a trip cross-country and back again by rail. It’s a good book, optimistic about Americans and our country, packed with acute observations and quiet wisdom, and written so that we hear Anna’s voice in the pages.
When we finished editing her book both on the screen and in print, I suggested we read it aloud. By reading aloud, we would not only catch any additional errors of spelling and grammar, but we would also hear and recognize passages that might deserve tweaking. Because we live six hours apart, we read the book aloud by phone, setting aside an hour two evenings a week for the project.
Anna’s voice is gentle and slow, and listening to her read her read from her book was a treat. My daughter, who learned about this project and who knows Anna well, told me to encourage her to make a recording of the book because of her unusual voice.
At Christmas, when I was visiting my daughter’s family in Pennsylvania, my son-in-law Mike read nightly to all of us in the den, mostly stories by Patrick McManus. Mike has a rich voice, and his reading once again gave me great pleasure.
And then, just before New Year’s Eve, on a visit to my public library I stumbled across Meghan Cox Gurdon’s The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction (HarperCollins Publishers, 2019, 278 pages).
In her “Introduction,” Gurdon makes it clear that sharing books by reading aloud offers benefits to people of all ages. She stresses the importance of reading aloud to children both here and throughout the book, but adds a paragraph that deserves quoting at length:
“It would be a mistake, though, to relegate reading aloud solely to the realm of childhood. The deeply human exchange of one person reading to another is, in fact, human, which means that its pleasures and benefits are open to everyone. Teenagers and adults who are read to, or who do the reading … benefit, too, in ways intellectual, emotional, literary, and even spiritual. For frazzled adults in midlife, whose attention is yanked in a thousand directions, taking the time to read aloud can be like applying a soothing balm to the soul. For older adults in later life, its effects are so consoling and invigorating as to make it seem like a health tonic, or even a kind of medicine.”
Which was true for me.
In addition to being a balm to the soul, reading aloud with family or friends brings other gifts. It increases vocabulary, and for those young people who are less than enamored with the classroom, sharing a book can provoke discussion, raise important questions, and hone critical thinking skills. As Gurdon reminds us, we live in an age of technological distraction, and reading aloud for half an hour takes us away, however temporarily, from our glowing screens.
“Reading Aloud Furnishes the Mind” is the name of one chapter in The Enchanted Hour, and here Gurdon gives dozens of examples of how by reading aloud we can furnish the minds of our listeners with “eccentric oddments, beautiful images, and useful bits of general knowledge.” She stresses the importance of fairy tales for children — I would say for adults as well — citing a remark attributed to Albert Einstein: “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” For the young, these tales spark the imagination and feed the mind.
In “From The Nursery To The Nursing Home,” Gurdon presents several studies and personal accounts of the positive effects of reading to the elderly. “In a 2010 survey in the UK, elderly adults who joined once-a-week reading groups reported having better concentration, less agitation, and an improved ability to socialize.” When Linda Khan’s 88-year-old father was awaiting heart surgery, and the once vibrant, strong man had become querulous and depressed, she began reading him a Churchill biography, Young Titan. The mood in the hospital room changed dramatically. The reading “got him out of the rut of thinking about illness. It wasn’t mindless TV, and it wasn’t tiring for his brain or eyes because I was doing the reading.”
At the end of The Enchanted Hour, Gurdon offers start-up tips for read-aloud programs in the home, recommends reading from a book instead of a tablet because of possible electronic distractions, advises parents how to deal with restless children (reminding them that “there is no ‘correct’ way to read aloud), and points out how reading aloud can bring family members closer together.
She also includes a 10-page list of books, both the ones mentioned in The Enchanted Hour and an additional list of her other favorites. Among all these titles are classics like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Little Prince, and other titles that were new to me, books like Vera Brosgol’s Leave Me Alone! Kenneth Kraegel’s The Song of Delphine, and Bill Richardson’s The Alphabet Thief.
If you decide to try some family read-alouds, Gurdon reminds us that there’s no time like the present, and “there is no present like the time.”