It was my daughter Elin’s 14th birthday yesterday. She recently cleared her bedroom shelves of many of the books we were reading together nine or ten years ago, leaving a tottering pile to be sold at the school Christmas fair.
‘We can’t get rid of this one – and certainly not that one!’, one of us would exclaim periodically, as we went through the dog-eared volumes that had once meant so much to us all. Soon there was a growing pile of books that just had to be rescued and saved.
The most precious were rarely those picture books with worthy stories, tasteful artwork or design awards. Some of them had already been old and tatty when Elin first saw them, old books from the 1950s with garish two-colour printing and cheap paper, or some from the 70s which seemed to have dated even more. The common factor of the Saved Pile, it occurred to me, was that all those books were perfect for reading aloud.
The cadence of natural, everyday speech is ideal for children learning to read, and far better than those artificially simple sentences, made up of staccato monosyllables, that were recommended so many years ago.
I’d always known that reading to children was a Good Thing, but had not previously realised just how much it can benefit the adult as well as the child. I still remember, word for word, whole sections of books read to me when I was little, as well as the stories I read to Elin in my turn.
Reading a piece of writing out loud can often show up the true quality of the writing. I never found JK Rowling fared very well in this test, I must say. Her sentences sometimes straggle or become tangled and trip up the tongue. Mind you, that never stopped her cash tills ringing. I am sure my sentences are no better, but I do often read out loud as I write, even when working on non-fiction books. I imagine I am speaking directly to a child of the required age group, explaining how something works or describing a historical event. (Please note I have not applied the same rule of thumb when writing a blog for you lot!)
The power of the spoken word, the oral tradition, marks out much of the best literature. It can be heard raging through the ancient epic rhythms of Homer or Aneirin. It inspires those passages that Dickens chose for his public readings.
Speech is the lifeblood of all good narrative. Even the mundane speech of 20th century suburban America can become magical, when it rings true – as in a Raymond Carver short story.
A recent biography and a radio broadcast have offered some interesting perspectives on the spoken word. Apparently Jane Austen’s real talent lay in recreating natural speech: the polished construction and grammar belonged to her editor.
Another pundit has pointed out that the magnificent language of the King James Bible was intended for declaiming to large congregations, and that this it why it is superior, as a work of art, to modern translations. The same could probably be said of Martin Luther’s Bible, which helped determine the future of the German language, or of William Morgan’s Bible, which shaped the Welsh language.
So, let’s keep on reading out loud – from the cradle to the grave! Now then, I’d better be carting those bags of books off to the school fair. Penblwydd hapus, Elin, a Nadolig Llawen a Blwyddyn Newydd Dda i’n holl ddarllenwyr!