- - Thursday, May 2, 2019

THE ENCHANTED HOUR: THE MIRACULOUS POWER OF READING ALOUD IN THE AGE OF DISTRACTION

By Meghan Cox Gurdon

Harper, $26.99, 304 pages

To develop a true passion of reading, it’s important to consume books with your inner and outer voice. The former is taught to us in our homes and schools, whereas the latter is slowly becoming a lost art. We need to reverse this trend to preserve the fond, therapeutic memories of being read a book aloud by our parents and the beauty of reading aloud to our children.

Meghan Cox Gurdon, a longtime children’s book reviewer for The Wall Street Journal, agrees with this sentiment. Her book, “The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction,” suggests “[r]eading out loud is probably the least expensive and most effective intervention we can make for the good of our families, and for the wider culture.” In her view, “it’s an effort worth making, especially now that almost everyone’s raft is tossing on a wide and often lonely sea of pixels. Young and old, we need what reading aloud has to offer.”



Long before the advent of phonographs, radio, TV and computers, the simplest pleasures were often found in reading out passages in religious texts, manuscripts, stories and so forth. As Mrs. Gurdon points out, “Silent reading of the sort we practice with our books and laptops and cellphones was once considered outlandish, a mark of eccentricity.” It was understood and, indeed, expected that these written documents would be read to others, for “to read at all was to read out loud.” Stories would come alive, and the characters and themes would become vivid sources of imagination and intrigue.

“In the time of Dickens,” for instance, “reading aloud at home was very much a common household entertainment.” The great British author was paid a pretty penny by captivated audiences in England and Ireland. He apparently spent hours preparing notes and subtle reminders to inflect his voice in certain places. Listeners were told to imagine themselves as part of a “small group of friends” so they could “surrender to the story” of that particular day or evening.

Reading aloud serves as an integral piece of the puzzle for the “galloping pace of brain growth in a child’s first three years of life.” Mrs. Gurdon posits that this technique gives little ones what they truly need during this crucial period of development, including “more loving adult attention, more language, more opportunities to experience mutual engagement and empathy.” Characters in picture books are also important, since the adventures they go on, and the situations and conflicts they encounter, “can intensify their emotional awareness with amazing rapidity.”

Reading books out loud also helps enhance a young person’s vocabulary and diction, as “language allows children to occupy the world, their castle, as owners.” Classic stories like Laurent de Brunhoff’s “Babar the Elephant,” and newer books like Jon Klassen’s “This Is Not My Hat,” contain exciting words and phrases to help shape young minds and ask thought-provoking questions. As a 2015 Indiana University-Bloomington study revealed, “shared book reading creates a learning environment in which infants and children are exposed to words that they would have never encountered via speech alone.”

Poetry, fables and fairy tales, among others, perform a similar task. “The more stories children hear,” Mrs. Gurdon noted. “and the more varied and substantial those tales, the greater the confidence of their cultural ownership.” It also creates an experience to “furnish their minds with eccentric oddments, beautiful images, and useful bits of general knowledge.” This could include Aesop’s fables, the Old English poem “Beowulf,” or even Margaret Wise Brown’s “Goodnight Moon,” which “assumes a not-insignificant measure of background knowledge” such as Mother Goose nursery rhymes.

“The Enchanted Hour” also emphasizes that reading aloud is good for young and old alike. Someone who is “limited by old age or illness may need the help of another to escape the ‘painful crudity and hopeless dreariness’” of the circumstances he or she finds themselves in. There’s also a “performance element” at play. Everything from “the reader’s phrasing and intonation, the pauses between words and sentences, the timbre of the voice and its warmth or chill communicate themselves in a complex aesthetic experience that is as transient as breath and as comforting, as we saw with the babies in the NICU, as physical touch.”

I enjoyed being read books aloud by my parents, as much as I still enjoy reading aloud to my young son. After reading Mrs. Gurdon’s wonderful book, I hope you’ll want to do the same thing with your family and friends, too.

• Michael Taube is a frequent contributor to The Washington Times.

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