Saturday, May 16, 2009
An eon ago, before audio books were invented, literate families used to sit in the living room while Father (or Mother) read aloud from the latest novel or biography or children's picture book. It was a social habit of the time, just as watching TV after dinner is a habit of ours. It's a pity that reading aloud is a lost art, for spoken words carry far deeper meaning than superficial action viewed on the screen.
"Reading aloud captures the physicality of words," writes Verlyn Klinkenborg in today's New York Times. "To read with your lungs and diaphragm, with your tongue and lips, is very different than reading with your eyes alone. The language becomes a part of the body, which is why there is always a curious tenderness, almost an erotic quality, in those 18th- and 19th-century literary scenes when a book is being read aloud in mixed company. The words are not mere words. They are the breath and mind, perhaps even the soul, of the person who is reading."
Maybe this is how one deaf child learned what Klinkenborg calls "the inner voice of the prose, the life of the language." When I was four, five and six years old, Mother and Dad set aside an hour after dinner just for reading aloud.
But they did not read to me; understanding them would have been too difficult for a deaf kid who relied on lipreading. Instead, I read to them. The books we started with were simple and full of pictures -- I remember Babar the Elephant -- and later on we graduated to such colorful adolescent tales as the Hardy Boys mystery series and Freddy the Pig.
One difficulty with deaf children's learning of spoken language is that so many of them get the words but not the music. They learn to put together literate sentences, but they are flat and two-dimensional, written in shades of gray rather than the colors of sound.
Reading aloud to my parents and brother, I am convinced, taught me the swing, the sway, the soul of language. I could not hear the words, but voicing them taught me subtleties of vibration I could feel in my larynx and diaphragm. Once I had learned about onomatopoiea and alliteration-- the busy buzz of bees, for instance -- I was on my way to soaking up the prosody of English. I had discovered that words have music as well as meaning.
That is one important reason I became a writer. (Another may be heredity; my father was both a superb prose stylist and a compelling storyteller.)