Meghan Cox Gurdon reminds us of the power of reading aloud in this extract from The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction …
Sometimes we may forget that there’s more than one important dynamic in family life. The pleasure and value of reading aloud extends beyond parents reading to their children. The intellectual stimulus it brings, the emotional connection, the strange stir of shared literature; all this also happens when adults read to adults, when siblings read to siblings, and when, one day, grown-up children read out loud to their parents.
“Read him slowly, dear girl, you must read Kipling slowly. Watch carefully where the commas fall so you can discover the natural pauses. He is a writer who used pen and ink. He looked up from the page a lot, I believe, stared through his window and listened to birds, as most writers who are alone do. Some do not know the names of birds, though he did. Your eye is too quick and North American. Think about the speed of his pen. What an appalling, barnacled old first paragraph it is otherwise.” — Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient.
Not long ago, a woman named Linda Khan was sitting by a hospital bed in Houston, Texas, feeling ill at ease. Beside her lay her eighty-eight-year-old father. His heart was faltering. He needed surgery. That wasn’t what was bothering Khan, though. What troubled her was that all day the two of them had engaged in nothing but depressing small talk. She loved and admired her father, and they’d always had good conversations, but now he seemed sunk in querulous contemplation of his predicament. He talked about the lousy hospital food, the tests, the doctors, the diagnosis, the potential outcomes. The scope of his once wide-ranging interests seemed to have shrunk to the size of the room. Khan, for her part, had a similar feeling that the world outside was becoming remote, disconnected, irrelevant.
“It is really hard to sit with a person in a hospital,” Khan told me later. “They’re going through so much, and it feels like there’s nothing to talk about except their medical situation.”
Casting around for a way to divert her father’s thoughts, Khan’s eye fell on a stack of books that people had brought to the hospital as gifts for him. Her father had always been a big reader, but of late he didn’t have the energy or focus.
In that moment, Khan was struck with an epiphany. She picked up a copy of Young Titan, Michael Sheldon’s biography of Winston Churchill, and started to read it out loud.
“Right away it changed the mood and atmosphere,” she told me. “It got him out of a 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.”
That afternoon, Khan read to her father for an hour. It was a relief and a pleasure to both of them. Reading gave the daughter a way of connecting with her father and helping him in a situation that was otherwise out of her hands. Listening allowed the father to travel on the sound of his daughter’s voice, up and out of the solipsism of illness and back into the realm of mature intellectual engagement, where he felt himself again.
“He’s in and out of the hospital a lot now,” Khan said, “and I always read to him. It’s usually military history or biography, not my usual stuff, but he has good taste. I’m happy.”
For Neil Bush, the late-life hospitalisations of his famous parents, George H W and Barbara Bush, became opportunities to repay a debt of gratitude.
“When I was a kid [my mother] would read to me and my siblings,” he told a reporter in the spring of 2018. With his parents in and out of care, he said, “We’ve been reading books about dad’s foreign policy and more recently, mom’s memoir.”
Bush went on, his voice thick with emotion, “And to read the story of their amazing life together has been a remarkable blessing to me, personally, as their son.”
The day after he gave the interview, his mother died at the age of ninety-two.
In reading to their ailing parents, Linda Khan and Neil Bush returned to a traditional means of consoling the sick. They also joined excellent historical company. Among the many men and women over the centuries who have lifted the burden of a loved one’s confinement by reading out loud, we can count the great Albert Einstein. His sister Maja had suffered a stroke in her mid-sixties and remained bedridden for the rest of her life. According to a charming account in the New Yorker, Maja’s brilliant older brother would go up to her room in the evenings and sit for an hour or so, reading the Greeks: “Empedocles, Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Thucydides receive the tribute of the most advanced and abstract modern science every night, in the calm voice of this affectionate brother who keeps his sister company.”
Einstein was a man who appreciated higher planes of thought, as we know. Perhaps it was because of his almost superhuman intelligence that he was so sensitive to the plight of an active mind trapped in an earthbound body. Years earlier, at a birthday celebration for the theoretical physicist Max Planck, Einstein had talked of the human yearning for transcendence over coarse, quotidian things:
“I believe that one of the strongest motives that leads men to art and science is escape from everyday life with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness, from the fetters of one’s own ever shifting desires.”
“A finely tempered nature longs to escape from personal life into the world of objective perception and thought; this desire may be compared with the townsman’s irresistible longing to escape from his noisy, cramped surroundings into the silence of high mountains, where the eye ranges freely through the still, pure air and fondly traces out the restful contours apparently built for eternity.”
A person who is limited by old age or illness may need the help of another to escape the “painful crudity and hopeless dreariness” of his circumstances. That is certainly the case with the title character of Michael Ondaatje’s 1992 novel The English Patient. Burned over most of his body, the man is active only in his thoughts, and the young Canadian nurse who reads aloud to him keeps mangling the Kipling.
“Think about the speed of his pen,” he entreats her.
The English patient’s request is a good reminder that reading aloud needs to be considerate and companionable. No one wants to hear a voice droning on without regard to the words or the listener. At its best and most uplifting, the experience becomes a piece of art that the reader pulls from thin air and gives as a gift to the hearer. The artwork is composed of a writer’s words and the music they make as they strike the ear, combined in the telling of a narrative that produces what radio dramatists used to call sound pictures, or “theatre of the mind.”
There is a performative element, too: the reader’s phrasing and intonation, the pauses between words and sentences, the timbre of the voice and its warmth or chill. All these things communicate themselves in a complex aesthetic experience that is as transient as breath and as comforting, as we saw with the babies in the NICU, as physical touch.
And there is the giving of self. When we read to other people, we show them that they matter to us, that we want to expand time and attention and energy in order to bring them something good.
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