My eldest was six when I began reading books to him that we could both enjoy. Sure, I’d enjoyed النقطة السوداء and Bob and Bobby. As has been said elsewhere, a great children’s book appeals to all ages. But the pleasure of these is nothing like the joy of reading Pride and Prejudice aloud, by turns, with my son.
Yes, I had read aloud to my son since the time he left the womb. But our journey took a distinct turn on a warm Cairo evening with the Kenneth Grahame classic, The Wind in the Willows. I enjoyed it so much that we moved on to King Arthur and a whole raft of H.G. Wells novellas, Treasure Island, Watership Down, The Hobbit, and many others. Three years have passed, and my eldest (now nine) is perfectly comfortable reading big books on his own. Yet we continue the practice every night we can. This is not because I think it’s educational or will better his chances at getting into X-brand university, succeeding at Y corporation, and making a pile of Z country’s currency. I don’t do it for my son’s sake any more than he does it for mine. We both anticipate these shared readings with joy.
At one point, I did give it up. There were some of the shared books that I didn’t much like, some in the “middle grade” category that didn’t rise to the level of interesting literature. Then I decided, “Boy, this takes a lot of time!” and so instead of reading the books aloud as a joint activity, I just plopped him down with an audio recording of Mr. Popper’s Penguins or some such book that could be easily found on “tape” and was “age appropriate.” After all, he was seven or eight and I was a fair piece older, and our tastes didn’t always align.
He quickly lost interest in these “tapes” (CDs, MP3s) and returned to reading books on paper. While impersonal audio books have gained a lot of ground with adults, who fancy themselves really really busy, they are not as appealing to children.
Nonetheless, reading apps — and books children can have read aloud to them on various e-readers — are gaining ground. Certain parents lament the loss of a parent reading Good Night, Moon; I don’t care if I never see that book again. My children don’t have e-readers, but I’m not entirely opposed to the idea, and my eldest did learn to read, in part, courtesy of starfall.com.
But, during our break from reading aloud, there was something I missed. When I’d read Pride and Prejudice to myself, I had moved through it quickly, in the space of perhaps a day or two. When my son and I opened up Pride and Prejudice and read it aloud, we took at least a couple of weeks. I invented voices for Mary and Darcy and Bingley; we talked about it in between reading sessions. I felt the book on my tongue, in my throat. I’m not sure if I can point to any particular revelation that came from this sort of reading, but I owned the book in a new, physical way.
After all, when reading aloud, words have a different sort of pleasure. A ruin is not just some old remains of a building — it’s a two-syllable word that is a delight to say.
Jane Austen read books aloud to friends and family, as did many others in her time and before. It was a joy to many of these readers, I imagine: the pleasure of performance without the need to rehearse. But books are more easily available now. In certain countries, nearly everyone can have copies of his or her own, at least through the library system.
Poetry is to be read aloud, we’re told, and there are movements to keep that alive. But fiction has become something we do almost exclusively in our own private head space. I value my head space, perhaps over-much, but I have greatly enjoyed feeling these few books rattle around in my throat and bringing them out into a shared space, as well.