“Fuming, Harry descended the stairs to Snape’s dungeon… ”
Moments ago in my family’s car, the 10-year-old and 16-year-old were bickering about whether the 10-year-old sings with a fake Scottish accent. Now they sit silently as, in the front passenger seat, I read aloud from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I pause for a sip of water.
Ten-year-old: “You have part of a pita chip stuck in your braces.”
Sixteen-year-old: “No, I don’t… ”
Water bottle down. Book up. “‘You’re late, Potter,’ said Snape coldly, as Harry closed the door behind him… ”
And while all hell breaks loose at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, quiet reigns again in the backseat.
Sure, we all know it’s important to read aloud to small children. But how about big kids, and even adults? I’m one of many who love this old-school pastime—and not just because it’s the best car-ride peacekeeper since rocking out to the radio. Among the other top reasons to make reading a social event…
It’s no coincidence that any number of romantic scenes in movies (Bull Durham, Sense and Sensibility, Bright Star, Groundhog Day—I could go on) feature adults reading or reciting to each other. Plenty of real-life couples make it a ritual. “It feels nurturing to be read to as an adult,” says my friend Karen Page. She and her husband, Andrew Dornenburg, co-write culinary books by day; at night, they read aloud from novels. “It’s like giving a gift to the other person, an act of generosity at the end of the day. It gives us an opportunity to bring something to life with our voices and emotions. And it deepens our relationship, giving each of us one more thing to love about the other.”
Reading aloud involves more parts of the brain than reading silently, says William Graves, Ph.D., a psychologist at Rutgers University. “Meaning-related [semantic] areas of the brain are activated in both, but reading aloud or listening to reading also engages auditory areas and speech production areas.” Science has yet to discover whether this difference has cognitive perks. But to Graves and others, it seems clear it can boost your appreciation of a book. “Reading aloud forces you to pay attention to the sound of words, how the sound of one word fits with another. You’re not just focusing on the meaning, which you would primarily do when reading silently.” Another reward: “I feel like sometimes the images that writers are trying to convey end up being more vivid after hearing it read aloud or reading it aloud yourself.” Small wonder that for so many of us, fantasy books are popular read-aloud choices, as are works from the days when almost all stories and poems, written or not, were shared orally. When you read Shakespeare aloud, Graves points out, you and your audience hear his words as he intended. “That’s an important part of the experience.”
In my mother’s last months, she couldn’t read much to herself without losing focus. But she enjoyed having family members read to her by the hour—and often seemed to forget her pain in the process. This let us simply relish each other’s company for a change. Plus, it helped give her the illusion of leaving her bed for the wider world. One day when I was reading her Agnes de Mille’s Where the Wings Grow, doing my best to render the accents of the various characters, Mom chuckled and turned to my husband. “I love hearing her read,” she told him. “She goes all over the world with her mouth.”
Silent reading is great, too, of course. It’s enriched my family’s lives in countless ways. Even so, reading aloud can have an educational edge. If my kids had read the Harry Potter books on their own, who knows how long it would have taken them to realize that words like “jumper” and “trainers” mean something different in England—or to correctly pronounce words like “malady” and “exchequer”? More important, they might not have had thoughtful conversations with their parents on topics such as, “Why didn’t Harry and his friends tell a grown-up, instead of fighting the Death Eaters by themselves again?”
My kids will blush, but I can’t resist mentioning that nothing’s more adorable than your offspring reading to you while channeling the likes of Hagrid the half-giant. How could TV possibly compete?
And speaking of TV… My family watches the tube with the best of them. We’ve even been known to do it during dinner, which is why, afterward, I often suggest a little read-aloud time. To paraphrase Page, watching TV makes us tune each other out—but reading aloud does the opposite. And if it occasionally sparks fights about whether, say, Hermione in Harry Potter is as smart as Alex on Modern Family, well, some arguments are worth having.