Many of us probably remember being read to when we were children. I cherish the memories of my father reading me bedtime tales and of reading stories to my younger brother myself in turn. But why should this wonderful habit stop when we grow up and grow old? My husband and I have recently taken up the practice of reading books aloud together in the evenings, a hobby that has come with surprising effects and joys, such as bolstering wellbeing and wonder, providing a way to connect after a long day, and strengthening our listening and communication skills.
I’m the first person to admit that, after a screen-soaked day, all I want to do is sit down and passively watch a show or scroll through my phone. But after experiencing the refreshing delight of reading aloud together, I’ll be trading technology-filled evenings for the crisp pages of a good novel.
Here’s what makes this practice so enjoyable.
Cultivating Wellness and Wonder
Psychologists have studied how reading to a child at bedtime serves more purposes than just lulling the child to sleep. While relaxing and calming, the custom of reading also encourages language and literacy development, provides an opportunity for physical closeness with the parent, and fosters creativity and wonder.
I believe these same benefits hold true for adults, too. We can continue augmenting our inner vocabulary and learning through age-appropriate books (or fairy tales!) while snuggling up with a loved one. The adventure, drama, history, or mystery of the story can spark the imagination and wonder by inviting us into someone else’s story.
Rather than staring at a screen which emits circadian rhythm-disrupting rays, choosing a book before bed can improve the quality of sleep and boost mental health by protecting and promoting brain function and neuron growth, expanding empathy, and serving as an overall de-stressor. Establishing a restful routine of reading aloud takes the benefits one step further for both the body and the imagination.
A Bonding Experience
Reading a book is, in a sense, a kind of journey, a process that takes work, time, attention, and perseverance to reach the end. There are easy, enjoyable parts, and there are rough, tedious ones. If you’ve ever traveled with a friend or a group, you may have bonded with your companions throughout the journey and likely because of the experiences and adventures you had along the way.
Reading aloud provides a similar opportunity. By reading with a companion, you have an opportunity to learn about the emotions and character of the other reader—what makes them laugh, what moves them, what engages them—and they can learn those things about you.
Reading aloud can also strengthen a relationship by encouraging vulnerability. Reading to someone, or letting someone read to you, is an act of service that requires the humility of both serving and being served. Through the partnership of voice and ear, it builds a connection of emotional intimacy.
I remember sobbing (read: “loud ugly crying”) as my fourth-grade teacher read to our class Where the Red Fern Grows. And as an adult, my voice cracked and I wept while reading about Beren and Luthien in The Silmarillion with my husband. It is difficult to be vulnerable. But great literature, as any art, can facilitate vulnerability by drawing forth emotions of all kinds. The story, shared together, opens the way for that bond.
One of my college professors suggested reading books or poems aloud if time permitted, because that was the way so many authors of years past intended their prose to be experienced. While reading audibly does take longer, it forces reader and listener to slow down and contemplate the story in a different way. It creates the space for leisure by allowing us to step back from passive slothfulness or workaholism to partake in a moment of active receptivity. Plus, it is so much more impactful to recognize, encounter, and appreciate literature’s great lines when they are shared aloud.
Reading aloud, is an active practice for both parties—the reader must be engaged in the text and understand what she is reading so she can communicate that in tone, inflections, and voice; and the listener must be equally engaged in following the story as a good audience. The active engagement and discussion that follow are exercises in communication that are vital in any relationship.
Further, both companions keep one another accountable and motivated to finish the book. The reader and the listener need each other, and when you reach the end, you’ll be proud of your accomplishment and what you learned and encountered along the way.
Instead of clicking the next episode on Netflix to binge-watch, my husband and I often find ourselves reading “just one more chapter.” We’ve found that reading aloud to each other, unlike watching a show, moves our attention outside of ourselves and into active and authentic human connection.