A few weeks ago, I found myself sat quite spontaneously in the audience of a free talk at the Oxford Literature Festival. It was the first day I had ever spent in Oxford; the sun was shining, and being vaguely aware of the festival (though believing it was all academic events ticketed and behind old oak doors) I had wandered into the Blackwells marquee, picked up a programme, and plonked myself down on a plastic chair. It said that a casual lecture was about to begin on ‘The Social Life of Books’. I had no fixed plans, no one to meet, and so the eternal student in me decided to stay.
The talk – given by a young, scarlet-lipped Professor Abigail Williams – was about the speaker’s newly researched book of the same name: a history lesson about ‘reading together in the eighteenth-century home’. It was all about the role books once had – a role which I had never really considered before:
‘Two centuries before the advent of radio, television, and motion pictures, books were a cherished form of popular entertainment and an integral component of domestic social life.’
And for the next twenty minutes I was absorbed. Reading – seen now as an innately isolated activity – was once a recipe for family fun (or not, as I’m sure many 18th century children saw it). It brought people together, and amused them into the long evenings. Just as I listen to podcasts when getting ready in the mornings, women would read to each other when doing their hair (which could take hours). And just as we sit down with our families to watch TV after dinner, these people would sit down to read a book.
Suddenly, books had this new power in my mind. They weren’t silent anymore.
And so recently, I’ve been thinking about how reading aloud fits into our lives now. Think of all the Harry Potter that’s been read at bedtime. Consider the many school years of listening to a teacher read a chapter to the class – cross-legged on the wiry blue carpet, and later sat in pairs at desks, skipping on ahead when it’s an unlucky students turn to stumble. All with dog-eared editions of the same book, limping through the action one lesson at a time. Most of us begrudged the activity – but you’ve got to admit, reading a book as a group of thirty, experiencing every moment together, is quite the phenomenon.
The Handmaid’s Tale will forever be narrated with the voice of my 6th form English teacher. I always admired the speed of her words, the expression, the ease at which she emphasized exactly the right bit every time. Reading aloud is hard. And if you were to be judged in a drawing room for the telling of a story, no wonder people were given lessons in the skill.
Reading out loud is a brilliant brain exercise too. I remember doing it daily on my ‘Brain Training’ DS game (though I usually cheated and raced through the timed passages in my head). It involves processes you wouldn’t otherwise engage – at least not simultaneously. It’s also incredibly useful for editing work: I read my entire undergrad dissertation to my empty bedroom the day before hand-in, and all sorts of hiccups showed themselves. Each time I tripped or ran out of breath, a sentence could be improved.
Reading out to an audience is scary (as any author at a book launch will tell you), and doing it when alone feels strange… but reading to someone else can be an act of love. I had a lecturer who once said that reading poetry to someone was the greatest act of intimacy: do it often enough, and you’re in danger of falling in love. He claimed he’d had students who blamed their marriage on his module.
I watched a film recently, in which the young, war-widowed protagonist told of how her and her husband used to read to each other every night. Something about this image painted the purest picture of devotion; the simple act of sharing beautiful words with someone, or of bathing in their voice as they share theirs. It felt like something lost in an age of ‘Netflix and chill’… But why shouldn’t reading be shared again? Not just in the classroom, but in the bedroom, over coffee cups at breakfast time, or on sun-drenched grass at weekends.
When Captain Scott’s team of explorers were trapped in an ice cave for seven months in 1910, together they read a copy Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield (a cracking one, if you haven’t delved already). I read about it in a Guardian article the other day. When times were at their toughest, a doctor had prescribed two chapters an evening to keep their spirits alive.
And Dickens wrote it for that very purpose – perhaps not with Antarctica in mind, but for being read in episodes, like a TV series, filled with cliff-hangers to keep the reader (or listener) hooked. And as Abigail Williams reminded me in that humming festival marquee; periodicals like these were not silent. They were sociable. They were shared after dinner and discussed over lunch. It was the early version of our screen-fed culture.
But books never went away: they’re very much still here. And regardless of unlimited box-sets and dodgy school curriculum, they still have the same recreational, romantic, and social power they always did.
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