Here we learn that reading was not always a silent activity and that the experience of reading aloud can be enjoyed by people at any age.
Back in the fourth century, tongues started wagging when Augustine of Hippo walked in on Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, and found him . . . reading to himself:
When he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.Whether Augustine was impressed or appalled by the bishop's reading habits remains a matter of scholarly dispute. What's clear is that earlier in our history silent reading was considered a rare achievement.
(The Confessions, c. 397-400)
In our time, even the phrase "silent reading" must strike many adults as odd, even redundant. After all, silently is the way most of us have been reading since the age of five or six.
Nevertheless, in the comfort of our own homes, cubicles, and classrooms, there are both pleasures and benefits in reading aloud. Two particular advantages come to mind.
- Read Aloud to Revise Your Own Prose
As suggested in our Revision Checklist, reading a draft aloud may enable us to hear problems (of tone, emphasis, syntax) that our eyes alone might not detect. The trouble may lie in a sentence that gets twisted on our tongue or in a single word that rings a false note. As Isaac Asimov once said, "Either it sounds right or it doesn't sound right." So if we find ourselves stumbling over a passage, it's likely that our readers will be similarly distracted or confused. Time then to recast the sentence or seek a more appropriate word.
- Read Aloud to Savor the Prose of Great Writers
In his superb book Analyzing Prose (Continuum, 2003), rhetorician Richard Lanham advocates reading good prose out loud as "a daily practice" to counter the "bureaucratic, unvoiced, asocial official style" that anesthetizes so many of us in the workplace. The distinctive voices of great writers invite us to listen as well as to read.
When young writers ask for advice on how to develop their own distinctive voices, I usually say, "Keep reading, keep writing, and keep listening." To do all three effectively, it certainly helps to read out loud.
To learn more about the sound of prose, see Eudora Welty on Listening to Words.