The last time I talked to my daughter on the phone, she said, “Guess what Adriel is doing now.” That’s my nine-year-old granddaughter, and of course I always want to know what she’s doing now. Since they live 800 miles away, I don’t get to see them very much, but it so happened that the last time I saw Adriel she had brought along a library Playaway* of one of the Redwall books. It was a great way to pass the time on a long flight, but she enjoyed it so much she was listening again, and after they returned home to Pennsylvania she found another book in the series to listen to. So, my daughter explained to me, “I told her that if she really wants to get into Redwall she should read the first book,” which wasn’t available in an audio version. And that’s what Adriel was doing when I called: reading Redwall, a 350-page epic. She broke off to talk to me for a few minutes. How was she liking the book? I asked. “I loooove it!” (When I told her about the Redwall Cookbook she made all kinds of happy noises and jumped up and down for joy—she’s a very demonstrative little girl.)
Adriel didn’t start reading voluntarily on her own until the age of eight—like a lot of kids, she preferred movies to books–but was catching up fast. What helped was the spoken word: my daughter read to her from birth, and also limited the DVDs they could check out in favor of unlimited audio books. I’m probably preaching to the choir if I extoll the virtues of reading aloud to pre-readers. Research shows convincingly that kids who are read to as toddlers gain a huge advantage in school. But most parents cut back on reading aloud after their lap-sitters start picking out books for themselves. Even homeschooling parents don’t always see the point in continuing the practice for their teenagers.
I read novels to my children from the age of three all the way to high school. That was largely because I love to read aloud—it’s my inner drama queen–but also because it encouraged family togetherness during times of upheaval and change. I didn’t realize at the time that there other reasons for continuing the practice through teenhood, such as
- It’s countercultural. Our culture is obsessed with the visual: sharing photos and vines, chattering endlessly about movies. Reading aloud offers young people a chance to slow down and form their own pictures called up by words alone.
- Words shape reality. From their earliest days, our children learn who they are and where they belong by what we say to them. We speak their names and bring them into focus. We say, “No,” and give them a sense of morality and lawful limits. We encourage confidence with “Good job!” Now that they’re older, spoken words can open doors to a wider world before they’re ready to step over that threshold.
- Solitary reading is important, but shared reading is shared life. Teens need both—they need to develop their sense of self, including personal likes and dislikes, but they also need to reinforce their sense of relationship. The self typically takes center stage during these years—to a fault. The natural adolescent tendency of ignoring everything that doesn’t directly concern them needs to be counteracted. Reading aloud is experiencing a story together as it slowly unfolds over time and opens opportunities for interruption and discussion.
- It helps us all learn to listen: to pay attention and remember. When following a book-length story, or even a multivolume epic like Lord of the Rings, each listener has to keep the story thread in mind between sessions, then add details and developments as they go along. Not everyone will remember the same way, but while discussing where they left off, everyone should be able to fill in something that the others missed. Sometimes it’s surprising how much one listener missed, but it’s also an encouragement to listen a little better.
- Reading aloud also makes priceless memories. Gladys Hunt, in Honey for a Teen Heart, tells of her family’s epic experience of going through the Lord of the Rings trilogy. They read on long car drives, during a ski vacation and a camping trip–including one memorable day of rain and wind, spent wrapped up in sleeping bags and passing the book from reader to reader. At home, a neighbor boy often dropped in to participate. The reading of a saga was itself a saga of shared thrills and frequent emotional pauses.
Psalm 19 begins with the heavens wordlessly declaring the glory of God—the very heavens that were called into being with words. The psalm goes on to extol God’s spoken words in the law—as light, as truth, as treasure, as sweetness—concluding with, “by them is your servant warned” (vs. 11) Sometimes I like to compare familiar passages to the New Jerusalem Bible, for its literary quality. The NJB reads, “Thus is your servant formed by them” (i.e., the commandments, or word, of God). I’m assuming there’s an alternate translation in the Hebrew that carries the sense of formed; as any rate, I’m struck by it. In a very real sense, we are formed by the words of God, and the Bible places a special emphasis on spoken words.
To a much lesser extent, we are formed by words in stories and books. Hearing them, as opposed to processing them by ourselves, draws us out of our little hothouse and into a web of interconnected experience. A worthy book (which we’ll talk about next week) can make that experience worthwhile: “rejoicing the heart” but even, a little, “reviving the soul” and “enlightening the eyes.”
Okay, but how? I have a few thoughts on that. Ask me next week.
*Playaways are audio books on their own individual mp3 players. You supply one triple-A battery and headphones or earbuds.