The Old-Fashioned Pleasure of Reading Aloud

A way to enjoy books and build companionship with fellow readers–even in a busy world.

When my husband and I were dating, one of the ways we got to know each other was by reading books aloud. Reading together sparked great conversations. I learned what mattered to him, what made him laugh, what he found beautiful or compelling. Reading quickly became one of our favorite ways to enjoy one another’s company.

It still is.

Right now, we’re engrossed in the lengthy Middlemarch, squeezing in a chapter whenever the busyness of work and toddler-raising allows. He reads while I drive. I read while he washes dishes.

If you think of reading aloud primarily as something good for children, I expect you’re not alone. Google “reading aloud” and you will find mostly results aimed at parents and educators. Reading aloud helps kids develop vocabulary, increases comprehension, and instills a love of reading — all worthwhile goals. We certainly read aloud to our daughter (Goodnight Moon, not Middlemarch). And, thinking back on all the older children’s classics our parents read to us, we look forward to the time when we can share them with her.

But that’s not my point in this article. I’m talking about adults reading aloud with and to other adults — for fun. It’s an old-fashioned form of recreation, but I’m convinced it has something to offer to busy contemporary adults: both a greater enjoyment of books and a deeper companionship with those who read with us.

Here are four reasons reading aloud has brought joy to my life, and can enrich yours too.

1. Reading aloud is slow.

When my husband and I met, I was just away from four book-filled years as an English major. I was a little burned out — not by the books themselves, but by the way I too often read in college: struggling to stay awake with caffeine, chewing gum, and energetic music; powering through a required number of pages; underlining everything I thought might be on the test. As an adult no longer in college, I had to rediscover pleasure-reading.

Reading aloud slows you down. It immerses you in the story at the story’s own pace. You can only read as fast as you can speak. Every page can equally demand your time and attention, even those you might be tempted to skim when reading silently.

2. Reading aloud is auditory.

Slowing down your reading to the pace of speech brings out the musicality of language. Words are not simply a tool for transmitting information from author to reader. They’re made to delight the ear.

If they don’t delight — if the words have a clunking cadence, or sound unnatural, or continually trip you as you read them — it will be all the more obvious aloud. Reading aloud can expose poor writing and show good writing to best advantage, so a side effect may be a more developed sense of literary taste.

Recently, we read aloud All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren. I had read it before and liked it, but I do not remember being particularly struck by Warren’s style. Aloud, it was brilliant.

Warren shifts between extremes. Sometimes he gives you short sentences, heavy on dialogue, very colloquial, very Southern, often profane. At other times, the protagonist’s reflections flow out in long, beautifully cadenced sentences that leave you out of breath. Reading aloud, you don’t have to pause and analyze to appreciate these differences; you can feel them.

3. Reading aloud is social.

We revisited All the King’s Men because it was our book club’s selection. If you’ve ever participated in a book-club discussion, you know how it can broaden your perspective and deepen your understanding and appreciation of something you’ve read. Other readers notice different things, make different connections.

Reading aloud with someone is like being in a book club, with more immediacy. Rather than reflecting back on a book you both finished reading, you’re experiencing the book together in real time. Sometimes my husband laughs at something I wouldn’t immediately notice as funny, and through him I’m able to appreciate the humor. Sometimes, a brief comment he makes about something we’ve read leads us into a lengthy tangential conversation. No matter what, my own reading experience is richer for what I gain from his.

4. Reading aloud is difficult.

Anyone who can read can read aloud. But it is difficult to do it well. That’s one of the reasons it’s enjoyable.

Think of other things you do for recreation: cycling, playing strategy games, drawing, dancing, making music. Each is a learned skill, and the process of improving your skill is rewarding.

Skillful reading is a participation in the beauty and power of a good book. You interpret as you go through the inflections you use. You suit your reading pace to the mood of the story. You vary your tone of voice to distinguish between characters in a dialogue. You get to help the story come alive.

This month, try an experiment: start with a book that’s already familiar to you, one you know you like and want to share with someone. Read it aloud to him or her, or take turns reading it aloud to each other. I think you’ll find you like the book even more when you’re done, and you’ll certainly know it better. You may know your fellow reader better too.


Erin Schellhase lives with her husband and toddler daughter in Northern Virginia. In her spare time, she is usually either reading a book or trying to write one.

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