One of the earliest memories I have is of listening to stories — my parents and older siblings read books aloud to me; Winnie the Pooh, Pookie, The Borrowers and many more. But the minute I learned to read, that was it — I wanted to read everything myself. Pure impatience. I could read much faster than people could speak it. Of course I gained a whole world of books. I didn't realize it at the time, but something was lost in that switch.
As well as books, I loved to be told stories. "Tell me about when you were little," I'd say to Mum or Dad. Or, "tell me about the time when Jill ran away from home with the bathtub," which was a story about one of my sisters before I was born. I had my favorites, and would ask for them again and again, but I also loved hearing new, as-yet-untold stories that Mum or Dad would dredge up from their memories. I'd also pester my grandparents for their stories and memories. I wish now I'd written them down, because they're all lost now.
Some stories had been handed down over the generations. Dad used to tell the story of Timothy Mouse and Hector Owl and to this day I can hear him doing the voices — "mopoke, mopoke". It's not the story that Disney made a film of, by the way. I think it's a story his father told to him, but I'm not sure. A "mopoke" is a kind of owl we have here, and that's the sound it makes.
Storytelling is one of the oldest human activities. It bonds people, it shares stories and strengthens understanding within a group. It educates, but most importantly it entertains.
A friend of mine's mother had almost no education — she came from a place where education was deemed unnecessary for girls. But she was the most wonderful story-teller. As a teen I would sit with my friend, watching her mother make fabulously light and delicate pastry, her hands spinning magic out of flour and butter as she told us stories. Some were tales from her childhood, others were stories passed down from previous generations, some were scary and a little paranormal, others hilarious and very earthy.
In the past, before literacy was as widespread as it is now, it was common practice for people to read aloud to others. One person might read while a group of others sewed or did other quiet work. Sometimes it was a treat to hear part of a story during a break. Historian Robert Darnton wrote, “For the common people in early modern Europe, reading was a social activity. It took place in workshops, barns, and taverns." Charles Dickens and others published their books in serial form in magazines and newspapers, and people would eagerly await each new episode, which would then be read aloud by some literate person to those who could not read. It then became a wonderful shared experience.
In The Last Bookshop In London, a book I recommended last month, the main character started reading her book aloud during an air raid, and people gathered around to listen, and were taken away from their present helpless horror into a world of fiction. After that first time, she kept doing it and people came back again and again to listen. It helped them stay resilient and hopeful.
These days, audio books have boomed and more and more people are finding pleasure in having books read aloud to them. I generally only listen to audio books when I'm driving a fair distance, or doing some dreary job at home, like re-grouting tiles, or clearing out a cupboard. But listening to books or stories read aloud by a real person right there in front of you is a different experience altogether.
A local bookshop used to put on readings by visiting authors. Two or three authors on a raised platform read excerpts from their book to an audience seated at tables, perhaps with a glass of wine or two. I generally went along to hear one particular author, but invariably I'd fall for every one, and come away with a small stack of books. There's something mesmeric about listening to an author reading their own words in person, even if they're not a particularly skilled reader. Of course, if they are, it's magic.
You can hear Neil Gaiman reading from his book "The Graveyard Book" here — it's just chapter 1, but I suspect you'll be hooked. And I remember one time when I was in New York for a romance writers' conference, I attended an event called "Lady Jane's Salon" in which hundreds of writers crammed into a basement bar to hear a selection of authors read from their books. It was wonderful.
The first time I read aloud to an audience from one of my books, I was worried it was taking too long, even though I'd carefully researched how many pages it would take for the time I'd been allotted. To my surprise, when I finished, the audience wanted me to keep reading. It might have felt slow to me, but apparently experiencing the story felt different.
For years friends of mine, who aren't generally big readers, have been sharing books, taking it in turns to read a chapter aloud, sometimes while driving, or while away camping, but most often in bed at night. Each book they read together became an intimate shared experience, much more so than if they'd each read the book separately and talked about it afterward. I remember giving them How Green Was My Valley and it took them ages, but the way they kept talking about it, it was such an obviously rich experience for them, I envied them, even though I've read the book several times.
In primary school, we often ended the day having a story read aloud to us, while we doodled or colored in or did puzzles or just listened. I still remember some of those stories, and looking back, I realize that a lot of the kids who didn't like (or weren't very good at) reading got a lot out of it too. Maybe it even helped make them better readers.
Studies show that reading aloud help people of all ages to retain stories better, that when you're listening to a story it can go deeper, touching emotions, perhaps because you're experiencing it along with the characters. Reading aloud to people in nursing homes and hospitals has been shown to improve cognition and a general feeling of well-being. I recently read about an art exhibition that had stories read aloud as part of it, and people came back again and again. I suspect the practice is growing — I certainly hope so.
So perhaps it's time to stop thinking reading aloud is only for kids — it's for all of us.
What memories do you have of being read to or told stories? Do you ever read aloud these days or have someone read aloud to you? Is there a book you'd love to have read to you? And who would you want to read it?