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“The Enchanted Hour” by Meghan Cox Gurdon. Col­legian | Anna Timmis

Whether it’s to the preemie babies in hos­pital incu­bators, young children piling onto a couch after dinner, the teenager who just came home from school, the couple on a road trip, or an elderly man with his daughter in a nursing home, there is uni­versal power in reading out loud together. Hearts quiet, minds focus, and breath falls in sync as the reader opens a book and reads the first lines of a chapter.

Meghan Cox Gurdon, the Wall Street Journal’s children’s book editor, recently pub­lished a book titled “The Enchanted Hour: The Mirac­ulous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Dis­traction,” on Jan. 8. Gurdon makes a case for bringing back the practice of reading out loud, espe­cially in our fast-paced digital world. We have audio­books, edu­ca­tional com­puter pro­grams for kids, and TV, along with the general dis­traction of smart­phones and tablets. Is reading aloud nec­essary, Gurdon asks? Is it pos­sible to fight the dis­traction of our con­tem­porary age? Gurdon says “yes.”

A mother, essayist, critic, and former foreign cor­re­spondent, Gurdon is no stranger to the dis­trac­tions of tech­nology and a busy work schedule, and is honest that taking time to read aloud as a family can be dif­ficult. But while alter­na­tives like audio­books have ben­efits, nothing can beat the real human inter­action of reading stories with one another. Gurdon quotes a clinical psy­chol­ogist who says that reading together in a group creates “a bouquet of neu­ro­chem­icals.”

“It should not be sur­prising, then, that the emo­tional rewards of reading aloud are wildly out of pro­portion to the effort it takes,” she writes.

This influence begins even before children are old enough to get any lit­erary benefit.

Georgetown Uni­versity researchers found that pre­mature babies reacted strongly to the voice of their parents reading to them, building the con­nection between the parents and their children through reading.

The book included many anec­dotal stories about children who ben­e­fited from being read aloud to. The parents of a teenager with severe autism who could not speak, but com­mu­ni­cated through typing, loved when his mother read to him because he loved to be near her and expe­rience the world through books and movies.

Young children learning to speak benefit far more from inter­action with their parents than edu­ca­tional pro­grams. Parents can respond to a child’s gaze and the children have “joint attention” with the adult reading to them. This means we have an enormous respon­si­bility when around children, even babies. They notice if we are more focused on our iPhones than on them.

In ancient Greek tra­dition, a “rhapsode,” or a “stitcher of songs,” would recite full epics from memory, such as “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.”  For hun­dreds of years, people read exclu­sively out loud. Gurdon ref­er­ences Augustine’s “Con­fes­sions,” in which he marvels at seeing a bishop reading silently to himself. It con­fused his sol­diers when Alexander the Great once read a letter from his mother silently, instead of out loud. The words on the page are the tools for the sto­ry­teller. Gurdon writes that the reader is another trans­lator, bringing the words to life,  and also bringing joy to others.

About 14 percent of adults in the world today are illit­erate, but reading out loud gives others access to the delights of the oral tra­dition. Not only that, but it gives children and adults alike a respect for the past and a knowledge of cul­tural foun­dation. The fairy tales we read today have been passed on since the Middle Ages or before.

Gurdon quotes Jack Wang, an English pro­fessor at Ithaca College, saying “these stories belong to everyone. It’s not just the Western canon, per se, but everyone can feel a sense of own­ership over these classics because these are great human stories.”

Even reading authors whose opinions are taboo today helps us to under­stand others and the times they lived in.

Through anec­dotes and research, as well as per­sonal expe­rience, Gurdon offers a lovely ritual that draws people together, enriches minds, an alter­native to the iso­lating enter­tainment tech­nology offers, and the epi­demic of lone­liness that has struck our world.

She sum­ma­rizes near the end of the book, “lit­erary art helps us live longer, and enjoying it together out loud makes us smarter, happier, and more con­tented. It may even be … that being the reader, the rhapsode, is in itself good for the body and soul.”