Magic of the Spoken Word: An Apologia for Oral Reading

Feast of St Gregory the Illuminator, Bishop of Armenia

Augustine_Reading_Square.jpegWHY READ aloud to one another? There is a magic to the spoken word, one that involves hearing and experiencing the thing being spoken. Perhaps we could say the same thing of listening to a lecture or a sermon; but these are not quite the same. A lecture or sermon is given (most often) by the person who wrote the words, and may involve extemporaneous speech. It is their voice, expressing their thoughts, in an attempt to communicate them to us.

Reading aloud is different in that the reader is giving voice to another person’s thoughts, as recorded in a text. We choose to read the works of people more eloquent, thoughtful, and poetic than ourselves so that we might know things unknown to us, or that we might know what we know more deeply. This is why we read books silently, of course, but the act of reading aloud to a group of adults is a communal act, one that requires the reader to not put too much of themselves into the reading; to let the words speak for themselves, rather than through the reader’s idiosyncratic filter.

It is impossible, except in the rarest of circumstances, for the reader’s voice to completely disappear. So there is little reason to consciously impose ourselves on a text. Perhaps completely disappearing, to become one with the text, would be a good thing, an extraordinary thing to experience and behold. But it is a thing that cannot likely be accomplished through effort or self-consciousness, as to be in such a state requires the opposite, effortlessness and unselfconsciousness.

But even if a reader never achieves an experience of losing himself in the text, there are still many good reasons for the practice of reading aloud amongst friends.

Reading aloud is more akin to the reading of scripture in a liturgical setting. The reader must approach a text with respect in order to communicate the text itself, not their interpretation of it. They must practice pleasantness of speech, proper enunciation and pronunciation, cadence, breathing, pitch. It is practice, which of course involves little failures and little triumphs of intuition and execution. But for the most part, it can be done passably well by most people.

Reading aloud as a group gives us opportunity to experience poetry, the slipping into and out of rational thought and its opposite: immersive poetic experience.

The choice of text matters, in that some writings are better suited to reading aloud than others, but the important thing is to read amongst friends, welcoming strangers, enjoying a meal shared together. It is very nearly a sacramental experience.

“There is no boone in life more sweet, I say, than when a summer joy holds all the realm, and banqueters sit listening to a harper in a great hall, by rows of tables heaped with bread and roast meat, while a steward goes to dip up wine and brim your cups again. Here is the flower of life it seems to me!” ~The Odyssey, Book IX (trans. Fitzgerald)


Anthony Jacobs is a Wichita native and makes his living as a partner at Studium Architecture. He builds his life as a husband, father, supporter and agitator of classical liberal arts education, cheesemaker, and enthusiast of things Homeric, poetic, and Byzantine. He is a founder and acting curator of the Society of Simple Souls reading group at Eight Day Institute.

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