Reading Out Loud

There’s a famous episode in book 6 of the Confessions where Augustine takes special note of the fact that Bishop Ambrose had the habit of reading silently to himself:

But when [Ambrose] was reading, his eye glided over the pages, and his heart searched out the sense, but his voice and tongue were at rest. Ofttimes when we had come (for no man was forbidden to enter, nor was it his wont that any who came should be announced to him), we saw him thus reading to himself, and never otherwise; and having long sat silent (for who durst intrude on one so intent?) we were fain to depart, conjecturing that in the small interval which he obtained, free from the din of others’ business, for the recruiting of his mind, he was loth to be taken off; and perchance he dreaded lest if the author he read should deliver any thing obscurely, some attentive or perplexed hearer should desire him to expound it, or to discuss some of the harder questions; so that his time being thus spent, he could not turn over so many volumes as he desired; although the preserving of his voice (which a very little speaking would weaken) might be the truer reason for his reading to himself. But with what intent soever he did it, certainly in such a man it was good. (Confessions Book VI)

Augustine’s apparent surprise at seeing Ambrose reading without vocalizing–he even spends time speculating as to the reason why–has caused many people to wonder about how people read in the ancient world, and whether or not reading silently was an anomaly. This question seems rather controversial–and perhaps people are misreading Augustine’s surprise in this frequently referenced passage. (Check out this 2015 interview with Daniel Donoghue of Harvard on the subject.)

Others have argued that since Latin (and Greek) did not have spaces between words or punctuation, reading aloud made texts easier to comprehend. I mean, the first line of Virgil’s Aeneid would actually look like this:


Or, in English:


Imagine hundreds of lines of that!

The line reads, “Of arms and the man I sing, he who first from the shores of Troy…” For another example, take a look at this beautiful 1,600 year old illuminated manuscript page of the Aeneid digitized by the Vatican:

So you can kind of see that the argument about reading out loud for clarity as your eyes interpret a long series of letters without punctuation or spacing might have some weight.

Whatever the case might have been for the ancients and medievals, it seems that most of the reading we do nowadays is silent. Texting, twitter, and other social media platforms don’t require speaking out loud; nor do they usually involve in-person contact unless you happen to be showing a friend a juicy text you just received from a potential admirer. And even then, I suspect that 70% of the time people usually pass their phones over for the friend to read the text for herself.

I read rather quickly, and reading silently certainly accelerates my pace and allows me to read a lot more. But sometimes I wonder how well I read when I don’t have the demands of vocalizing or listening to others to slow me down.

In my Jane Austen seminar I’ve been reminded again just how delightful it really is to read out loud with others. Austen is more funny when you read her aloud. (So is Flannery O’Connor, by the way; so if you’ve had trouble getting into her stories make sure you’re attempting your best Southern accent with friends.) There’s kind of a social dimension to humor; we are more likely to laugh when we hear others laughing. And I don’t think this is superficial or merely herd instinct or groupthink–I think there are real elements of a text that can come out more clearly in community.

In Austen’s novels themselves you often encounter scenes where characters read aloud to one another: Mr. Collins boring the Bennet family with Fordyce’s Sermons or Henry Crawford charming Fanny Price and the Bertrams with Shakespeare. One thinks also of Marianne decrying Edward Ferris’ lifeless reading of Cowper in Sense and Sensibility:

Oh! mama, how spiritless, how tame was Edward’s manner in reading to us last night! I felt for my sister most severely. Yet she bore it with so much composure, she seemed scarcely to notice it. I could hardly keep my seat. To hear those beautiful lines which have frequently almost driven me wild, pronounced with such impenetrable calmness, such dreadful indifference!

Jane Austen herself, according to John Mullan, seems to have been a bit particular about how to voice each of her characters appropriately. In a fascinating interview you can listen to here, Mullan explains,

There’s quite an interesting, telling complaint in one of Jane Austen’s surviving letters to her sister, Cassandra, that Jane Austen and her mother have just received the first delivery of the first edition of Pride and Prejudice in January 1813, and they’re reading it aloud. She complains that her mother doesn’t make sufficient distinction between the voices of the characters, because the novel is like a play script as well as being a novel, and Jane Austen has written the dialogue in order that you be able to hear and distinguish the character voices and what they’re like from their voices, and she complains that her mum doesn’t quite get it right. So I very much think that reading aloud generated that attention to what literary critics call ‘idiolect’: the way people speak which is singular to them.

Can you imagine Jane Austen reading her newly published work out loud with her family? How wonderful to have experienced that!

When I was teaching high school, especially in the first couple of years, I was afraid to spend time in class reading passages out loud to my students lest they think I was condescending to them or treating them like little kids. But I soon discovered that some of them had never been read to at home, and many of them had trouble reading anything at all. It became clear that if many of them were going to learn how to read better or at least approach challenging works with more open-ness it would require a communal effort.

It took me a while to get the hang of it–my voice had to get stronger–and I had to be willing to take more risks in trying to adopt different voices and tones and pitches. In Huckleberry Finn Twain adjusts the spelling of his words to echo the accents of his characters, so in order to read the dialogue comprehensibly you need to adopt a Southern drawl (which tickled my Louisiana students when they heard their Boston-born teacher attempt it!)

Some of my favorite memories of teaching are the classes I spent reading out loud with my students. We could pause and I could give some explanation or background, they could ask questions about what certain words or phrases meant, and all of us could laugh out loud or gasp or groan together. You could see many of their faces light up as even Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter started to seem a little less laborious.

I was reminded of that experience again in the Austen seminar. I often take on the role of narrator, but I often ask others in the group to take on the speech of Darcy or Elizabeth or Lady Catherine, just as you might when reading a play. And the result is marvelous. Besides discussing the nuances and artistry of a well-written story, sometimes it’s just good to simply sit back and enjoy it together, to let Jane Austen speak for herself.

If you don’t currently have a space in your life where you read literature out loud with others, I highly recommend asking a friend or family member to join you to try it. It’s good for the soul.

Reading Devotions to Grandfather (1893). Albert Anker (Swiss, 1831-1910)