The first time I read aloud to one of my children, the experience ended in tears.
It was a sweltering July afternoon 21 years ago, and my husband and I had, incredibly, just been permitted to leave a Tokyo hospital with our firstborn, a daughter.
Immediately upon entering our apartment, feeling foggy about all but one thing, I carried the infant to the little room we had prepared for her, sat down in the rocking chair that I had painted before her arrival, and began to read aloud from a book of fairy tales.
"Long ago there lived a widower who had one daughter," I informed the pudding in my arms. "For his second wife, he chose a widow who had two daughters. All three had very jealous natures . . ."
The hot summer sun slanted through the windows. My voice sounded querulous and strange. The child lay oblivious. Was she even listening? Was I supposed to show her the illustrations? With a sudden sense of personal absurdity, I started to bawl. Things quickly improved, but honestly, what kind of a maniac reads Cinderella to a newborn?
Reading aloud was probably always going to be important in our family life, but it might never have acquired its tinge of benign extremism without the influence of my friend Lisa Wolfinger, who had started having babies a few years before I did.
It was she who first modeled for me the joyful primacy that reading aloud could command, even in a busy household. She read to her four boys every night, at length and almost without fail. I remember being at a dinner party at her house in Maine when her sons were quite small. During cocktails, she excused herself and disappeared upstairs. She was gone so long that eventually someone asked her husband if anything was amiss. "Oh, no," he said. "She's just reading to the boys." Any chagrin that we might have felt at being stranded by our hostess was replaced by amazed admiration — and for me a determination to do the same for my own children, if I ever had them.
Well, I did, five of them, and since that first hysterical episode in Japan I've read aloud to all or some of them virtually every day. It has been one of the great joys of our family life. It is also increasingly a torment — a torment because as children get older the schedule gets busier; because it's ever harder to get literary classics into children's minds before they see the Hollywood variants; because childhood itself is fast disappearing into the bewitching embrace of technology.
"I do think that people, in the rush and clamor and get-things-done-ness of daily life, need to be reminded about what reading aloud can do," says author Kate DiCamillo, a Newbery Medalist and evangelist on the subject.
To curl up with children and a good book has long been one of the great civilizing practices of domestic life, an almost magical means of cultivating warm fellow feeling, shared in-jokes and a common cultural understanding. Harvard professor Maria Tatar has written of its origins in medieval fireside storytelling, "before print and electronic media supplied nighttime entertainments."
Certainly in the modern era there is something quaint about a grown-up and a child or two sitting in a silence broken only by the sound of a single human voice. Yet how cozy, how impossibly lovely it is! Unlike tech devices, which atomize the family by drawing each member into his own virtual reality, great stories pull people of different ages toward one another, emotionally and physically. When my children were small, I would often read with my eldest daughter tucked in by my side, the boy draped like a panther half across my shoulders and half across the back of the sofa, a tiny daughter on either knee, and the baby in my lap. If we happened to be on one of our cycles through Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson's swashbuckling classic, my husband would come to listen, too, and stretch out on the floor in his suit and tie and shush the children when they started to act out the exciting bits.
To curl up with children and a good book has long been one of the great civilizing practices of domestic life, an almost magical means of cultivating warm fellow feeling, shared in-jokes and a common cultural understanding.
"We let down our guard when someone we love is reading us a story," Ms. DiCamillo says. "We exist together in a little patch of warmth and light."
She's right, of course. When you read Goodnight Moon with a toddler who sits trustingly on your lap, gazing at the page with rapt absorption; when you ask her to "find the mouse" and she pokes out a finger and earnestly touches the page, you are in that patch of warmth, the both of you. When you read The Story of Ping to a slightly older child and notice him wince at the moment when Ping gets smacked on the bottom after spending all night out on the Yangtze River; or when you get to the scene in The Wind in the Willows when Mr. Toad sees his first automobile and the children laugh out loud at his rapturous cries ("O poop-poop! O my!"), you are in that patch of light.
The evident pleasure of hearing a story read aloud is not confined to the young. Even teenagers (and husbands) will listen if the writing is good. So it seems a shame that, in many households, parents read to children only until the children are old enough to read by themselves. In the golden, misty days of yore — a decade ago, say — that could safely establish a pattern for life. Reading aloud was a kind of grand gateway, beautiful in itself but also an entry point to the larger world of literature. It was understood that a child who learned to love stories by hearing them would be a child who would willingly graduate to more sophisticated literature for his own reading.
Alas, this assumption is no longer so easy to make. In an epoch in which screens of one sort or another have become ubiquitous, it is more vital than ever to read aloud often, and at length, for as long as children will stay to listen. Without sustained adult effort, many kids won't bother going through the gateway at all. I know a voracious young reader who stopped consuming novels for pleasure for almost four years after she gained access to a laptop. In our family, the attempted usurpation by electronic entertainment has struck each child progressively at an earlier age — not because I'm a feckless mother, I hope, but because that is the way the culture is going. If the drift to YouTube and Instagram and Hulu has happened in our household, a book-obsessed place that is stuffed with gloriously varied volumes thanks to my day job as this paper's children's book critic, how must it be elsewhere?
Technology has "deformed the childhood of my sons," a friend says bleakly. Like mine, her children span the time before and after the mass use of computerized devices, before and after the deluge of online-ism — a coinage dangerously close to onanism and perhaps not far off the mark — and she notes a distressing difference between even the media saturation of her 17-year-old and his 13-year-old brother. The younger boy had less time to grow up without pixels, and it shows.
For many kids, if the choice is between a book and the Internet, the Internet wins. Studies of media consumption bear this out. But if the choice is between scrolling around through prefabricated worlds online and receiving the attention of a devoted adult, surely human storytelling can prevail. Brittany Baldwin, a speechwriter in Washington, remembers long sessions of her father reading The Yearling and The Hobbit to her and her three siblings at their home in Houston. "There was something about listening that not only helped us be attentive but also let [our] minds be swept up in the story until it became a dream," she says of those pre-Internet days. Hearing stories unfurl calmly, she adds, "gave me an outlook on things beyond what is seen."
My shining role model Lisa, the vanishing hostess — and, as it happens, a film producer and thus no reflexive enemy of the screen — notes: "Creating that world in your head is a muscle that needs to be exercised. Kids now are being spoon-fed the visual storytelling, so there's no reason for them to close their eyes and imagine a world, imagine what these people would look like, the clothes and smells and landscape."
It was for that reason that I tried furiously, when my children were small, to stay ahead of Disney and other well-meaning cinematic manglers of classic children's literature. Not that movie adaptations are necessarily bad, but they do tend to colonize the mind. I wanted my children to conjure sublimely odd, fabulously idiosyncratic stories such as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland,Peter Pan and Winnie-the-Pooh in their own heads, for themselves, before they internalized the animated renditions. It was hard, and it's getting harder. A second-grader too young to tackle the Harry Potter books almost cannot help seeing them onscreen, or bits of them, and thus will envision Maggie Smith as Prof. McGonagall before he opens the first volume in the series. That Hollywood has been interpreting children's literature since its earliest days — think of Shirley Temple in The Little Princess (1939) — is a reminder that the race against the machine predates the invention of the iPad.
IPads and audio books have their virtues, but they don't have warm arms, they can't share a joke, and they haven't any knowledge of, or interest in, a particular child.
Wait, I hear an irritated chorus say, what's so bad about the iPad? What about all those zippy interactive storybooks that tiny kids can "read" to themselves? And what about audio books — are they bad, too? IPads and audio books have their virtues, but they don't have warm arms, they can't share a joke, and they haven't any knowledge of, or interest in, a particular child. In the case of recorded stories, they can't answer questions or observe a child's puzzlement and know to pause and explain what, say, a "charabanc" is. They most certainly won't re-read Mr. Toad's brilliant insults for a listener who wants to memorize them. (One of my happiest moments as a mother was overhearing one daughter cheerily denounce another as a "common, low, fat barge-woman," a triumphant vindication of reading Kenneth Grahame to them.)
Both grown-ups and children are missing something when there is no reading aloud. The children's loss is hateful to contemplate: the fabulous illustrations they will not see, the esoteric vocabulary they may never hear, the thrilling epics they will never embark upon. But grown-ups lose too: They forgo a precious point of sustained connection and a lot of goofy fun (one friend's father used to read The Happy Lion in a John Wayne drawl), as well as the opportunity to pass on literary favorites. Harvard professor Maria Tatar evokes William Wordsworth in the context of handing down cherished stories: "What we have loved / Others will love, and we will teach them how."
What's more, reading to children provides a return ticket back through the gateway — to stories that adults may otherwise seldom revisit: fairy tales and Norse mythology, the heroic sagas of Odysseus and Beowulf, even the unexpectedly disconcerting adventures of the children who found themselves with Mary Poppins as a nanny. (Walt Disney left a lot out of the movie.)
For 45 minutes or an hour adults can give children — and themselves — an irreplaceable gift, a cultural grounding, a zest for language, a stake in the rich history of storytelling. That's not so long, surely? There will be plenty of time afterward for everyone to go back online.
Meghan Cox Gurdon. "The Great Gift of Reading Aloud." Wall Street Journal (July 10, 2015).
Reprinted with permission of the Wall Street Journal.
Meghan Cox Gurdon is an essayist, book critic, and former foreign correspondent who has been The Wall Street Journal's children's book reviewer since September 2005. Her Journal column covers the full range of books for the young, from babies to almost-adults, and appears in the paper's "Review" section each weekend.Copyright © 2015 Wall Street Journal