With all the new developments and buzz about e-books and e-reading, I’ve been thinking a lot about the written word. Which, for some odd reason, also got me thinking about books and the spoken word. I wasn’t one of those kids who went out for the school plays, so the occasional times that I do public readings from my novels, I’m more than a little nervous.
Gulp. Speak aloud? The sweat starts to trickle down my spine.
I always take pains to practice the selected passage aloud. The first attempt usually comes out as a croak. The second is a herky-jerky stumbling over the sentences. Finally, after countless tries, I’m usually able to get through it without too many embarrassing hitches.
For those who haven’t tried it, reading aloud is NOT easy. Oh, mumbling the words doesn’t take that much effort, but to capture the mood and the nuances of a story, to make each of the characters come alive, is a daunting challenge. At least it is for me. And it made me realize how, with CDs, DVDs, TV, i-pads, Kindles, Nooks, and the internet to keep ourselves amused, reading aloud—or storytelling—has become pretty much of a lost art these days.
Of course, that was not so in the Regency. We have only to look at the novels of our beloved Jane Austen to see countless examples of how the practice was woven into the fabric of everyday life. Fanny Price, like so many poor relations and paid companions, was expected to keep her aunt’s boredom at bay with the soothing sounds of the spoken word. The Bennet sisters had to sit through Mr. Collin’s pompous readings of religious texts. And then there were the solemn Sunday church sermons and passages from the Scriptures to remind people of their moral duties.
On a lighter note, we are constantly reminded of how one of the main sources of evening entertainment for a family was reading a novel together after the evening meal, with each family member taking a turn. Poetry was also popular—though I imagine not many parents allowed their daughters to recite Lord Byron’s Don Juan or The Corsair aloud!
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the oral tradition of storytelling has been an integral part of the human experience since the dawn of civilization. Starting with the ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, which dates from around 2000 BC and is considered one of the first works of literary fiction, we see the archetypal theme of “hero and a quest” take form. (Ha, you see, romance was at the root of our imagination even back then.) This continues with Beowulf and the classical Greek epic poems of The Iliad and The Odyssey. And the rise of Greek theatre, with its chorus, was another way of telling an oral story.
It’s interesting to note that during the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church developed “mystery plays” to convey stories of the Bible and other morality tales to the masses, most of whom could not read or understand the Latin of Church services.
The Middle Ages also saw the rise of the troubadour tradition, which combined epic poetry and song. Guilem de Peitieu, 9th Duke of Aquitaine, is credited with inspiring the concept, and the French courts went on to develop the concept of Courtly Love, and their stories refined the notions of chivalrous behavior that have been passed down to this day. Eleanor of Aquitaine brought the tradition to England when she married Henry II. Her son, Richard the Lionhearted, was one of the most celebrated troubadours of his time, and was much admired for his artistic skills—as well as his prowess on the field of battle. During this time, we also see the rise of the Arthurian legends. (Love, honor, jealousy, sex, betrayal—the romance is heating up!)
Dante, Milton . . . I could go on and on, bu
t let’s fast-forward to the present, where the idea of going and listening to someone read aloud seems something of an oddity, a quaint, old-fashioned throwback to the past. I suppose that audio books are the closest thing we have to a modern version of the oral tradition.
Which brings me full circle to my own experience. After coutless sessions of practicing until I’m blue in the face, I have come to two realizations: One—I made a wise career choice in steering away from the performing arts. Two—much as I want to like listening to stories, I much prefer to read them. I am one of those people who just doesn’t follow a narrative well by listening. It seems to go in one ear and out the other. My mind wanders . . . I forget what I have heard . . . a particular voice doesn’t mesh with my idea of the character. I need to see the printed words on a page, (yes, I still prefer books to e-readers) to go at my own pace, to hear my own voices for the characters.
The destiny of the world is determined less by the battles that are lost and won than by the stories it loves and believes in. —Harold Goddard
There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories. —Ursula K. LeGuin
The universe is made of stories, not atoms. —Muriel Rukeyser
What about you? Do you enjoy listening to books or storytelling, or do you need to see the words on a page to get the full enjoyment out of a story?