Having a book read aloud to you is one of the great joys of childhood. I have many fond memories of evenings spent in the company of Frog and Toad, George and Martha and Bilbo Baggins. I’ve since enjoyed the chance to experience this joy from the other side by reading to my nephews. However, a similar experience which I believe may be a bit under-recognised is the joy of reading aloud to — or being read aloud to by — another adult.
One of my favourite things as a reader today is sharing particularly captivating book passages with my partner (who often has less reading time available than I do). Because we’re both language-oriented people, I get additional pleasure from the look on his face as I read these passages, and from the discussion of ideas that sometimes results.
Reading aloud in this way is not the same as listening to an audiobook on one’s own, which is an experience that’s more purely internal, with no opportunity to share understanding beyond that conveyed directly by the writer. Reading aloud to another opens the chance to encounter someone else’s interpretations and to make the intimacy of the reading process one that brings you closer to those who matter most to you.
In some ways a book club or literature class can access similar experiences, but these venues lack the immediacy created by hearing words at the same time, in the same physical space. The ideas shared in these clubs and classes are often those developed through retrospection, rather than in the moment. By nature this makes them more likely to reflect intellectual formulation than visceral reaction and feeling.
To read works aloud to another is to allow them to see how those words affect you, both in the speaking and the comprehending. It’s an experience that is less controlled than our own dialogues, the words of which we may pick, choose and edit as we see fit to reflect how we wish to be seen. By contrast, speaking the words of another can evoke parts of ourselves we don’t plan to share. It can make us vulnerable, make us reveal new truths.
To my mind, hearing a work read aloud by friends or family can even be preferable to hearing them read by the original author. Although such a reading could reveal something of authorial intent (that great English major bugabear), it does not reveal near so much about the most important part of literature as an entity, namely, how the reading of it influences you, the reader — how it makes you feel, what it makes you think, what hitherto obscured parts of the soul it brings to light.