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When did we stop reading aloud?

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The memory is an echo, but the thunder and gallop of the rhythm still quivers in my head:

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the Valley of Death rode the six hundred,

the opening lines from Alfred Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade. Back in my home-schooling days when we lived in Morocco, my dear mother, poor lady, was implored to read this poem over and over again by two of my older brothers and I during our weekly poetry class. Sometimes I envied my other siblings who attended the local school, but not during poetry class. We didn’t have to do anything, just listen (and try not to fidget). Sometimes, on a glorious day, the sweet Mothership would take us outside and conduct the lesson in the shade of our back yard. Bliss. Give her half the chance – no, less – and she’ll still whip out an old favourite before you can say, “Mum, do you remember that poem you used….”

Likewise, I will never forget – not in all my life – my Italian professor reading out long passages from the Divine Comedy in Italian. It is some of the most beautiful poetry ever written, and to hear it read in its native tongue is enough to make you melt. You absolutely have to believe me. Amongst my favourites are the mellifluous opening lines of Purgatorio Canto VIII:

Era già l’ora che volge il disio
ai navicanti e ‘ntenerisce il core
lo dì c’han detto ai dolci amici addio,

The above examples illustrate some of the rare scenarios when reading aloud is still practiced and therefore normal: to children and in places of learning. The few other examples I can think of are: in court, at religious gatherings, and readings. Even readings, though, have become an “alternative” passtime. Count the occasions you’ve been to a reading versus gone out for dinner or to the movies. As for religious gatherings, a lot of people don’t. And court, well let’s just hope not.

Truth is, we don’t read aloud very often – and I’m as culpable as anyone. Reading aloud, it seems, has become somewhat of a lost art, a tradition battling an incipient extinction. But why?

One thing is for sure, read a book to a child and you’ll feel quite normal, even grown up. Read a book to an adult and you’ll feel like a complete plonker. Likewise, I know most of us descended into a blind panic when called upon to read during class: our eyes suddenly flittering in and out of focus, the surge of blood to the head as we anticipated a stutter or mispronunciation, fearing the censorious judgments of the teacher, not to mention the merciless taunting of classmates. So that’s clearly part of the reason: we’re embarrassed, or far too self-aware at least. But surely embarrassment alone hasn’t eroded this millennia old tradition.

In my last post on blogging and the history of writing I mentioned that Homer never wrote down a single word of his poetry, meaning – incredibly – that it was passed down orally for centuries. But that was normal back then because no one was very literate. Well, literacy didn’t really exist at all. Then literacy happened, slowly. So people who couldn’t read a story had to listen to one. On top of that, there weren’t very many books knocking around, and those that were, remember, cost you a pretty sum. So going to a reading was a bit like today’s equivalent of going to the library – you have to put up with a few weirdos, it kind of smells, but you get the same thing for free.

But now where are we? Everyone can read and books are as cheap as chips (if you buy them on Amazon). The conclusion, then: we don’t read aloud anymore because we don’t need to. More interesting, though, is that the spread of literacy and availablity of books – both wonderful things – have aggravated the demise of an equally important and longstanding tradition.

Fortuantely, not everywhere has reading aloud become such an atavistic activity. The Italians and their affair with the Divine Comedy is an apropos example.

For centuries in Italy in different piazzas, town halls, and auditoriums the Italians have shared in the prolific Lectura Dantis, the reading of Dante’s Divine Comedy, often in its entirety, over a series of days – weeks, really. (The Divine Comedy, by the way, is composed of three books – Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso – totalling 100 Cantos, each Canto comprising some 130+ lines. Yes, this is one poem. And the entire thing rhymes – and brilliantly, too). This has been happening since Boccaccio’s time, who himself, as orator, partook in the very same tradition in the piazzas of Florence. The beauty of this is that it still happens to this day, lead by, most notably, Academy Award winner and Italy’s cherished Roberto Benigni. Extraordinarily, he recites each Canto from memory. You can find videos of this on Youtube, my favourite being his recital of the last Canto, the climax and apogee of the entire poem. It is exquisite, breathtaking, life-affirming. Trust the Italians: when they do something well, Madonna mia don’t they know how to knock your socks off!

So we’re not all Roberto Begnini, I know. But we can try at least; we can begin to rediscover something of this important and increasingly rare tradition. Not just for tradition’s sake, but because it’s entertaining, sociable, beautiful. So read to each other. It takes some courage, and you may feel a little foolish, I understand. But you’ll also experience joy, trust me. Go on, promise me you’ll try it.


13 responses »

  1. I love this post, Gabriel! I want to understand Italian even more now. Better yet…I just want to live there!

  2. I agree, Gabs. And although it counts as one of your ‘normal’ places to read aloud, some of my fondest memories of teaching were spending whole lessons reading aloud to my students. It was a really remarkable sight seeing my very naughty and talkative Year 11 class of thirty 16 year-olds sat in silence, hanging off my every word as I read to them from H.G. Wells’ ‘The Time Machine’. Or the time when after finishing reading ‘Skellig’ to my Year 7s they broke into spontanious applause, not at my reading, but in sheer enthusiasm and enjoyment of the text. I think everyone should give it a try!

  3. I have had some experiences of reading aloud. One such experience was in 8th grade Englis class, where we took turns reading parts of “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”. I have a friend who reads books aloud with her husband. I even took a turn at it recently, reading to friends from a Dave Barry book. So, the practice is not entirely dead, thankfully.


  4. Gabriel: as usual, provoking topic. The idea may catch on a little faster if we gave it a try in solo fashion. Often in reading Scripture, I do it aloud. When I try that tack, it tends to enhance my grip on the content. Sometimes by the end of reading a verse or section, I reread it in more fitting tones and emphases, now that I have heard what was on the page! All that to say, reading aloud solo has been fun and readies me for a dramatic reading by… you, in English (!) of a good yarn in some future gathering. Pick a good one! Let’s start a new tradition!

  5. Great post. LOVE the part about your mum. I wish it wasn’t such a lost art. Let’s start a revival!

  6. Nate Andrews

    Gabriel, great post mate! I still remember hearing former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins read his work aloud to a packed out highschool gymnasium on Bainbridge several years back. I had never read a word of his before that afternoon, and to this day I still can hear the lovely rhythms and cadences, his own emphases and pauses when I crack open one of his books. I try to do this (read aloud) when writing poetry as well as checking the lyrical flow of any piece of fiction I’m seriously working on nowadays.

    • Thanks for reading, Nate, and taking the time to comment. If it wasn’t for you I would have never heard of Billy Collins. An audience with him on an island in a school gymnasium sounds dreamy. Keep up the reading aloud, and read aloud to the ones you love!

  7. I loved listening to Robert Benigni even though I couldn’t understand many of the words. The meaning came across anyway. Isn’t Italian a wonderful language for reciting like that? You’ll be pleased to hear that the mothership is still encountering new poets (or more accurately poets that are new to her) and she has been encouraged to try reading them out loud even without her usual audience.


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