During my ongoing battle with depression, I’ve experimented with all sorts of things to get myself out of the dark places. I’ve signed up for swing dance classes again, and started doing yoga on my own. I’ve watched less high drama and more of The Daily Show. But the things that I’ve found that help the most don’t involve classes, or organizations, or spending extra money. They involve other people.
I am a nostalgist. Perhaps that’s why I wrote the first draft of this on a pad of paper in a local bookstore. I may have been given an ereader, but I cannot convince myself to move away from the smell, feel, and solace of a bookstore or a library. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love new media--after all, aren’t I creating it right now? But I also love the old. And I’d like to advocate for a form of media that we’ve mostly forgotten about.
I like to call it communal reading, though it’s perhaps better known as reading aloud. And it’s a powerful beautiful thing.
I see some of you side-eyeing me. Reading aloud? Since when is that an art form? But it is. Take a second to think--when was the last time you did it? Maybe not that recently. And maybe it wasn’t exciting--probably downright boring. When we read aloud at our workplaces or in our classes, most times we are reading merely to convey information. But what about if you’re a teacher or a parent of a young child? Well, you’ve probably read aloud fairly recently. We’re encouraged to read to children, to help them to learn, to make stories come alive for them. And yet, it’s something we rarely do for ourselves.
What if we read communally for fun--regularly? What if we read communally as a way of life?
It’s not that far-fetched of a proposal. After all, 200 years ago, what we call reading aloud was just reading. It was an activity you shared with others. This was partly out of necessity--literacy wasn’t as widespread, and books and newspapers were more expensive and less common--but in great part for the enjoyment of all. Newspapers were brought to the taverns, and read aloud by an individual and listened to by the patrons multiple times a day. Initially, the novel was a communal experience as well--it wasn’t until it began to take off in the later half of the 19th century that reading became a more solitary. Reading a novel aloud isn’t that far removed from simply telling stories.
Communal reading is rare these days. We aren’t used to doing it. Many people are unused to reading with a vivid and expressive voice that really brings out the words from the page. We’re equally unused to actively listening--our attention wanders, demanding things to keep busy with.
It’s a shame, because reading aloud is so beneficial. There’s a reason that parents do it with children, and that children are tested in the younger grades with aloud tests--because it’s an illuminating measurement of process and comprehension. For students or anyone trying to improve your writing, reading your work aloud--to yourself or an audience, regardless of whether it’s a short story or a paper--is the best way to spot mistakes, problems, and things that don’t make sense. And reading aloud the work of authors you appreciate is a great way to try and figure out what they’re doing and how they’re doing it.
And if you’re not a child, a student, or a writer? Then communal reading is just that. It provides a love and a sense of belonging and being more than anything else I’ve done. When I’m reading aloud, I’m focused on the words, on my tone, on the nuances within the piece. When I’m listening to something being read, I’m paying attention to the voice of the reader, the rise and fall of the phrases, the pictures that form in my imagination as the words wash over me.
So give it a try. Turn off the TV, put away your phone. Find some friends or family who will listen or read with you. And if you don’t know what to read? Try this article from the NY Times that could have been a mystery novel for all the sensational writing. Ponder a well-written column. Find a good comic to laugh about. Enjoy a chapter of a novel that will make you cry. Read slowly, clearly, and with heart. Listen carefully, animatedly, and with soul. And remember that words in a row can bring people together in amazing ways.