I love to read. But I have found it difficult to integrate my bookishness into the compelling routines of family life. I had made a grudging decision to abandon the attempt when, one evening, my nine-year-old son and his two sisters began cackling at the dinner table over the ridiculous name of his new classmate: Penelope. To sweeten the parental task of domesticating his manners, I found myself trying to tell him about Ulysses’ Penelope, who did and undid her weaving to stall importunate suitors. Everyone wanted to know more, and a children’s Odyssey from the library soon led us through many other adventures, even producing some tears at the death of Ulysses’ old dog. We had fallen, half unawares, upon our now treasured custom of family reading—reading aloud around the table after dinner.

Thanks to the legacy of his Italian father, my husband has always required the family to stay at the table for conversation after a meal. Thus it was already established that we owed the time between dinner and the littlest one’s bedtime to each other, and that no one need break at a dead run for the television as the last bite was being chewed. Family reading fit naturally into that period. Visiting friends of all ages quickly agree to take their turns as the book is passed around and each person is responsible for a few paragraphs. (The six-year-old, to the counterpoint of tormented sighs from her big brother, reads a small paragraph. She needs less help in sounding things out than we might expect.) Ricky’s insult to Penelope has proved to be one of those chance opportunities that God so often allows; we are daily learning the implications of this idea that we never conceived when we first began to read aloud.

In the nearly two years since we started, we have been through a satisfying variety of stories and books. Among the memorable ones were James Thurber’s “The Figgerin’ of Aunt Wilma” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”; a number of Sherlock Holmes stories; Tevye’s Daughters by Sholem Aleichem (the source of Fiddler on the Roof); The Wind in the Willows; and Swiss Family Robinson. We have read a children’s Bible story book and a number of poems from such sources as The Oxford Book of Children’s Verse. We have delighted in the memoir of a North Dakota pioneer girlhood by an acquaintance, Lucy Johnston Sypher (The Edge of Nowhere, Atheneum © 1972); reading aloud was a special part of this engaging writer’s childhood. A recent discovery, recommended to us by another reading-aloud family, was The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pène du Bois.

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We decide informally what to read. Most often I, sometimes one of the others, will make a suggestion and get everyone’s reaction. Sometimes an experience, such as when we got the record of Fiddler on the Roof, makes the choice of a book natural and obvious. Choices are not imposed by fiat—a risk when a parent is on an intellectual hobbyhorse that the children cannot share (as in the story of a local newspaper columnist, who listened in unforgettable agony at the age of four while her father read Gibbon aloud for her edification). Nor do we read every night. Still, we don’t toss it aside lightly, since the child who whines, “Oh, do we have to?” may be the one who enjoys it most.

In conversation and in my own reading, I find that to confine reading aloud to the “bedtime story” of a very young child (we still have bedtime stories, too) is a foolish mistake for most families. When my husband or I mention our family reading to someone, he invariably exclaims delightedly that his family does the same thing—or that they would like to try it. An instructor of Russian literature at Harvard remembered reading Dickens aloud with her teen-age son and was glad of the reminder to start again. A young man who is training to be a children’s therapist has his wife, a professional storyteller, read fairy tales aloud to him—mostly because he likes them, but also because he never heard them as a child. His work with children would be severely limited without them. An executive we know likes to have his wife read aloud to him from the Bible, though neither is at present a believer.

It is possible that reading aloud, or at least reading with others, could do much to counteract the Christian’s tendency to relegate imaginative literature to “the world” and to confine his or her extra biblical reading to commentaries and testimonies. To me this practice, though I too have indulged in it, is so stultifying that it would be better to read the Bible only. There, at least, one does not lose sight of the importance of the imagination, and the power of language to depict what cannot be explicitly stated.

One of my students set out last winter to write a paper with the thesis that the reading of fantasies is a waste of time for a man preparing to be a pastor. He ended up writing his paper on the opposite side after he read C. S. Lewis’s Great Divorce. Lewis said that practical knowledge was all very well when you set out to build or to operate a boat. But to him, fantasy was more helpful if the boat should start to sink. In Jesus’ earthly ministry, an imagined story or metaphor was nearly always the best way to express the inexpressible: “What is the kingdom of heaven like? To what shall I compare it?” It must have been in order to keep that especial childlike quality of their Lord’s imagination that several young Christian couples—no children present—recently read Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles together; or that Connecticut pastor had reading-aloud evenings at his church, one of which included the children’s story, The Velveteen Rabbit.

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When a friend suggested that I write about our family reading, I had a hazy impression that in times past families gathered of an evening to read aloud the newest blue-paper-covered installment of a Dickens novel. So I wandered through the libraries, finding here and there, particularly in memoirs of nineteenth-century life, the sort of evidence I was seeking. I had to shed my mental caricature of that whole age as one of a calcified prudery (lamb-chop pantaloons on piano legs lest someone think of the filthy word “leg” in mixed company).

Those much-maligned Victorians were at least worthy of our attention in that they sought entertainment from one another, playing instruments together or reading aloud. For them there was no choice on a long winter evening; for us it must be a matter of sometimes “living deliberately,” as Thoreau would phrase it. Our television sets, radios, record players, and tape decks can be a great blessing. But, even if used only to beam a Christian message to our ears, they can conspire to rob us of such scenes as this one remembered by Julia Ward Howe: “Oh for one hour in our old square dining room at South Boston with the bright wood fire burning and dear Chev reading aloud to me and the children” (Three Saints and a Sinner, Boston, 1956, p. 358).

Even in a life whose household chores would overwhelm and exhaust a modern family, reading aloud found its place, along with the recitation of memorized passages. A nineteenth-century Englishwoman, Mary Howitt, recalled how she and the other children laid their heads by turns on their mother’s knee as she spun flax (no longer a fashionable activity then for a gentlewoman—but this mother “lived deliberately”) and repeated to them “long portions of Thomson’s ‘Seasons,’ of which she was extremely fond, ‘Gray’s Elegy,’ passages from Cowper, and other long poems, all of a meditative and serious character. I can recall now the sound of her voice, mingled with the busy humming of the wheel, and it seems delightful” (The Echoing Green: Memories of Victorian Childhood, Youth, Viking, 1974, pp. 155–56). When Mary Howitt went to visit her cousins in America, friends and relations all joined in the necessary process of making woven carpet from rags; to keep “this homely but curious work” from being tedious, “some amusing book was read.”

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The great writers whose work we have learned always to read silently sometimes betray their own reliance upon reading aloud. It appears to have been so obvious that it was taken for granted, and thus few have called attention to it. Jane Austen has her Emma read aloud to entertain a young portrait painter while he is working. Nathaniel Hawthorne read The Scarlet Letter aloud to his wife, Sophia, who cried into her sewing basket. (When he read The House of the Seven Gables, however, she was glad to be able to read the manuscript for herself afterward; being “eye-minded,” she said, she was able to see some things in the story that she could not hear. Eye-minded myself, I understand her feeling, but have found that being read aloud to is remarkably enriching, provided I get a chance to do some of the reading.)

In an earlier century, James Boswell read chapters of his great biography of Dr. Samuel Johnson to his friend Malone, the Shakespearean editor, in order to have his reactions and advice before publication. Closer to our own times, such treasured writers as Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and others of their generation read aloud chapters from ongoing works in their informal weekly club, The Inklings.

The education of a Renaissance prince included reading aloud, if we can judge from a rare memoir about the young Dauphin who was to become Louis XIII. According to his doctor, Heroard, the Dauphin had learned to read by the age of four or five, but still had stories read to him: “Children were not the only ones to listen to these stories [“Renard the Fox,” “Dives and Lazarus”]: they were also told to adults at evening gatherings” (Philippe Aries, Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life, 1962, pp. 72–3). The young prince was part of a society in which (whatever its other faults may have been) people’s amusements were seldom segregated by age. Everyone took part in most activities, from communal snowball fights to reading aloud.

When I was in college I used to see slogans pasted up in subways proclaiming that “The family that prays together stays together.” I see many Christian families that pray together, but do nothing together that engages heart and mind in the fascinating process of knowing others through intellectual delight, through turns of phrase, and moments of shared laughter or sympathy. The lack can force many an intelligent Christian into a dangerous state (what T. S. Eliot might have called a dissociation of sensibility), in which he concludes that he has to hide his real thoughts and feelings from others, from himself, and from God; and into a burial of talent that must bring the Lord Jesus great sorrow.

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Reading aloud is only one way of resisting that danger; for me it was and is a vital one. I found myself the other day wishing that a small reading-discussion group to which I belong could read aloud together. I said nothing, only to find that the others were thinking the same thing; now, to my deep delight, the Bible itself is a mainstay of our reading. After all, that is how the children of Israel, very few of whom could have owned scrolls of the Law and the Prophets, heard God’s Word. It was read aloud to them on important occasions, and they remembered what they heard—a skill that modern children are more likely to exercise on television commercials. The early Christians read at their times of assembly the Gospels and the apostolic letters. Those who now live in places where Christianity is illegal and Bibles are contraband must do the same.

Reading aloud suggests that what is being read is precious. Perhaps that is a quality we need to recapture, in a deliberate and childlike way. We are inundated with printed matter; but to select something and share it is nonetheless to proclaim its rarity, its distinction. Isn’t that what the lovers of the old St. Nicholas magazine are remembering when they bemoan its loss? When whole families, all ages, gathered to hear the latest stories read aloud, “culture … had the increased value of all scarce commodities.” There are signs—declining verbal test scores are among them—that culture is becoming a scarce commodity again. Reading aloud is an excellent way to help extract it from the mire.

Sonnet XXII

Thrice holy, three times spoken, meant, and heard
By one voice speaking once, once only hearing,
One only multifold, all-meaning Word,
From out of time, in time and flesh appearing;
Separate, though inseparably one,
Thou who art not the Father, yet art God,
Thou who art Son of Man, though no man’s son;
Root of Jesse, Rock of Ages, Rod
Of Aaron blossoming in barren soil,
Whose petals blades are of a burning sword
Which strikes its deep wounds full of healing oil;
Servant of all, and universal Lord;
With literal metaphors we stumbling seek
To praise thee, strong first-born of all who speak.

G. Douglas Young is founder and president of the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem. He has lived there since 1963.

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