Reading Out Loud

I consider reading a solitary endeavor. I like to hold my book in my hands, a warm mug nearby and lamplight shining across the page, and sink into the story. I get easily frustrated with people who interrupt me in the middle of a good book — even accidentally — and if someone demands my attention, it’s tantamount to yanking off someone’s headphones: you’ve crossed a line, punk, and I’m not responsible for your injuries.

But lately I’ve been reading aloud with kids — while babysitting, in the church nursery, while helping with homework. Sometimes I sit next to the older ones while they sound out the long words, and sometimes the tiny ones crawl into my lap and drop a stack of books on the floor, demanding, “Start with this one.”

When I was a kid, my mom would spend hours reading out loud to my siblings and me as we sprawled across the living room floor, coloring or doing homework or just listening. She read good books, books worth drowning in, and made us look up words we didn’t know. I still remember some of those stories in her voice.

My parents call it “lap time”: that concentrated time spent reading with kids. I’m not a psychologist, but I know that that combination — invested time, affection, learning, listening, reinforcement — is good for children, good for development.

It sometimes freaks me out when I remember that all the children around me — careless and overflowing with unselfconscious energy — have malleable, flexible brains, growing in personality as well as height. We’re literally watching them become people.

In George Orwell’s “1984,” one of the things Big Brother does to control the people is limit their vocabulary. A growing list of words becomes illegal; the dictionaries shrink; the words people use become smaller, less nuanced. After all, people who don’t have the words for rebellion won’t be able to talk about it.

Good book. Super depressing.

Last summer, a few friends and I sprawled on blankets across the grass at Centennial Park, watching clouds and brushing off the occasional wandering ant as someone read aloud the latest Harry Potter book. (She did the voices, too.) It’s one of my favorite memories from the season — others were louder, flashier, more exciting, but this was was molasses-slow and peaceful, a chance for me to breathe and laugh and listen and watch the sky change with the wind.

I sometimes forget that I and the people around me are still changing, still growing — that brains don’t just freeze in place when you hit 20 years old. We’re still getting smarter, gaining experience, adding skills, getting better at talking.

There’s not a point when you stop becoming human.

Leave a Reply