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In Praise of Reading Aloud

April 6th, 2021 | 8 min read

By Ali Kjergaard

It felt a bit awkward at first, a group of friends in their mid twenties sitting around in my library in an old Capitol Hill row house. We had all brought our copies of various Tolkien, some with a well-loved copy of The Fellowship, others brought stacks of the lesser known stories; The Silmarillion, The Unfinished Tales, Sigurd and Gudrún. Different levels of Middle Earth experts all brought together by a common love of Tolkien. We had discussed the idea of a “Tolkien reading night” for awhile, but on a rainy night we were attempting to make it happen. But would we be bold enough to flip open the pages and read the words aloud? Reader, we did. And it has made me wish I read aloud more.

The evening started with a story from the Unfinished Tales, the oath between Gondor and Rohan. A tale I hadn’t actually read before, but it made Rohan’s aiding Gondor in the trilogy seem more meaningful. It was a passage I probably wouldn’t have read by myself, nor been able to place it into the full context of Middle Earth, but thankfully I was among Tolkien fans.

After the tale we took turns reading the first chapter of The Fellowship. Familiar words seemed new and dazzling. They were the same words I’d always read, but somehow they seemed more alive. The humor and tongue-in-cheek writing of Tolkien came to light as we heard the words out loud. I had never thought of that first chapter as particularly humorous, but we all broke out laughing reading through the descriptions of Bilbo’s ironic presents to his relatives.

One of our friends read Mythopoeia out loud, the myth-making poem that I hadn’t even known existed. It is by far one of the loveliest poems I’ve ever read, and even now there’s a new magic to it when the words are read out loud, over the crackling of a fire.

Tolkien was what we read aloud that night and it still is what the reading nights continue to center around, but what other works need to be rediscovered in this manner?

My AP English classes in high school contained a bunch of high achievers. We were all sitting in a class catered to one test. In the back of our minds were always the questions: “Will this be on the test? Will it be in the essay portion? Can I just use sparknotes instead of reading the book?” The books read in class were merely a stepping stone to a glorious 4 or 5 on the exam. That is until we read Shakespeare out loud. A bunch of 15 year olds were enjoying and laughing through Shakespeare. I was assigned the role of Tybalt, and even I was amazed by how much fun I was having. The type A achievers were seeing Shakespeare in a new light, getting into our roles. I was eager for that 1pm class every day my freshman year while we were acting out the play. Most everyone has read a Shakespeare play for a high school class, but watching it performed or performing it yourself is an entirely different gift. His humor, the characters, the sharpness, it all comes to life on the stage or aloud in a classroom. This experience was my first introduction to what became a lifelong love of Shakespeare, and all because we read it out loud.

Both Shakespeare and Tolkien’s tongue-in-cheek humor is better captured when read aloud, and with that I have found that many other things are more humorous when read aloud. From childhood I have memories of crawling into my big sister’s bed as she would read Calvin and Hobbes comics to my other sister and me. Each of us laying on either side of her, peering at the brilliant Watterson sketches, but also chuckling at her made-up squeaky little voice for Calvin. Somehow those comics came to life curled up under Bethany’s quilt as she read aloud to us.

We associate read aloud time with childhood, it is often used as a wind down before bedtime for kids. It’s good for children, it helps memory and comprehension. It checks all the right boxes for development. It is physically good to read aloud or be read out loud to. But it’s more. I’m sure my parents used it as a bedtime tool, hoping to reign in my energy. But for me it wasn’t just that. It was entering a different world each evening as my mom took me to Prince Edward Island to a house called Green Gables, the prairies of Kansas with Laura Ingalls, a small Vietnam village in the Land I Lost. I explored the wide world from the coziness of my parents’ bed.

On hot summer days my sisters and I would drag a large metal bucket into the middle of our backyard. We’d use the hose to fill it up, dump in a tray of ice cubes, pull up the adirondacks (there was a mini one just my size), dip our toes in the water, and she’d open up the iconic neon yellow book. With that we’d be swept off with Nancy Drew and her gang to solve mysteries. I was still too little to read those books on my own, so it felt grown up to be let into their world. Being six and eight years younger than my sisters meant that we were on very different reading levels when I was young, but reading out loud meant I could tackle books that were out of my reach. I could sit on the couch next to them taking in the words and stories my mom was reading to them.

I read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was very young, or rather, I had it read to me when I was very young. I remember my mom telling me if I felt scared or it felt too dark I should tell her, but it was my first glimpse into the bleak world of racism through the eyes of a heroine who was my age. Scout’s view of the world made sense to me, to see injustice from the perspective of a child, and that sometimes you fight a losing battle, because that’s courage. Being read to makes you a better listener. It teaches empathy. How is it that just words can make you cry? There’s something about reading the last words of the book with your own parents, that Atticus will be sitting with Jem all night and will be there when he wakes up, knowing that they share that same protective love for you.

Reading books aloud is also deeply intimate, as both the reader and listener. The words feel different as they leave my lips, words I’ve read to myself time and time again. I’m sharing an intimacy with the author, their words in my own voice. And as a listener, I can’t check my phone, I can’t let my mind wander, I’m engrossed in the story. It takes effort to listen, taking each word and sentence captive. Some of the greatest intimacies I’ve felt in relationships have been in moments of us reading aloud to one another, either our own words or an author we both love; full concentration on the words between us. How does something so small let you feel so cared for? Perhaps because it takes me back to the simplicity of childhood, my parents reading to me and the only thing expected of me was to take in the story.

There is something to be said for the pace of reading aloud as well. Reading out loud takes more time, it slows the process down, and makes skimming impossible. As someone who sometimes puts speed above comprehension I often forget what pleasure I miss by not reading at a more leisurely pace. Sometimes we want to read (and read quickly), but every reader knows the sobering pain of finishing a good book too fast. Reading out loud allows one to truly savor a good book, letting the beautiful sentences linger in the air.

Perhaps we need this slower pace of reading books aloud. The intimacy of reading together creates a closeness not found in a book club, where the members read individually to discuss later. Reading together entails real-time responses to the story. Tolkien is especially fun to read aloud; the reader is left to recreate his world in their minds, there is the occasional snicker, and the mounting tensions of battles. I don’t believe I’ve enjoyed Tolkien so much as when my dad read The Hobbit to me or when sitting in my library, imagining Gandalf’s fireworks while my friend read aloud.

To be honest, I’d like reading groups to take the place of book clubs, or at least have a new place in society. I don’t deny that there is an awkwardness at first reading out loud as an adult. Are we really going to read aloud, like we’re children? Yes, Christ himself told stories to His disciples; that was how he taught, how he made known the Kingdom of God. The spoken word has power. We remember and we cling to the stories that are told to us out loud. Tolkien’s works had a new magic that night amongst friends.

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