“The time we spend reading aloud is like no other time,” Meghan Cox Gurdon writes in her new book, The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction. “A miraculous alchemy takes place when one person reads to another, one that converts the ordinary stuff of life — a book, a voice, a place to sit, and a bit of time — into astonishing fuel for the heart, the mind, and the imagination.”
And in a paragraph that seems like it could have been written for this week, she continues:
“In a culture that’s undergoing what’s been called ‘the big disconnect,’ many of us are grappling with the effects of screens and devices, machines that enhance our lives and at the same time make it harder to concentrate and to retain what we’ve seen and read, and alarmingly easy to be only half present even with the people we love most. In this distracted age, we need to change our understanding of what reading aloud is, and what it can do. It is not just a simple, cozy, nostalgic pastime that can be taken up or dropped without consequence. It needs to be recognized as the dazzlingly transformative and even countercultural act that it is.”
Let Gurdon enchant you.
Kathryn JeanLopez: Can reading aloud really be “miraculous”? That’s not overselling?
Meghan CoxGurdon: It’s a cheeky word to use, I know, but considered. Reading aloud is miraculous in that it transforms ordinary objects and settings from the mundane to the transcendent. It is miraculous in that it can take dead material — a defeated heart, a desolate spirit, a locked-in personality — and bring it to life. So, yes, I think it is fair in the context to appropriate this meaningful word!
Lopez: When did your first realize this?
Gurdon: The first kindling of awareness began when I was an inexperienced young mother, home with my first baby and unsure of what do or how to be, except that I knew I could read to her. We started right away, the day we came home from the hospital. It was like plugging into an invisible force field of nourishment, fascination, and wonderfulness. I read to her at length every day, and then to her and her brother, and then to the two of them and the three sisters who came along afterwards. Over the years, tucked up with them night after night, I knew something big was going on, but I could not have told you what it was. One of the reasons I wrote the book was to find some answers!
Lopez: How does science back you up?
Gurdon: Well, that’s a question with a book-length answer, so I would commend to you the pages of The Enchanted Hour! Among the many, many fascinating proofs, though, is the fact that when someone reads a picture book aloud to a child, all of that child’s deep brain networks are engaged. (With animation and screens, children’s brains register only the shock-and-awe of the visual.) This is profound and important, because of the rapid growth of the brain from birth to the age of five; in the early years, the wiring and firing of neurons, and the connection and synchronization of the brain networks, lay the architecture for future reasoning and imagination.
Lopez: Who has time, though?
Gurdon: I know — right? It’s hard enough to get through the regular to-do list for most of us, let alone add something like a daily dose of reading aloud. It’s the busiest parents who need reading aloud the most, because it’s a way to turbo-charge the time they have with their kids. It builds the relationship, enhances trust and reduces stress, fills children’s mind with language (and stimulates their cognitive development), and, super-importantly, gives them their parents’ full attention. But the tablets and phones do have to go off — tech is not a good companion during read-aloud time.
Lopez: Does it have to be an hour?
Gurdon: Absolutely not! It can be an enchanted ten minutes every day, if that’s all anyone can manage — but I’m telling you, when families make the effort to set aside a cozy time for reading, it can quickly become the most precious time of the day. Eventually you may want more than an hour!
Lopez: If a reader found himself following the Twitter drama about the Covington High School students at the March for Life, is your book a must-read?
Gurdon: It is going to take concerted, determined effort for us to drag ourselves out of the descent we’re in, as a culture. Someone has got to put the brakes on, and that someone is each of us. There is no doubt but that the disinhibiting effects of technology are proving as disastrous to the body politic as the screens and devices themselves are proving troublesome to our brains and attention spans. Reading books aloud with other people, with our tech turned off, is an incredible way to reclaim our humanity. It allows us to connect with each other, with literature and story, with the richness and beauty of language. Reading aloud is an antidote to what ails us. It feels a little hubristic to claim that The Enchanted Hour itself is a cure for the dispiriting ephemera of modernity, but, well, here goes: It is.
Lopez: Should The Enchanted Hour be read aloud?
Gurdon: Hah! I have heard from some people that they are indeed reading it aloud. Having recorded it for Harper over four days in a small studio, I have to warn you that the book contains an awful lot of complicated and challenging proper nouns (easy to write, harder to say)! Maybe let me read it to you, by getting the audiobook.
Lopez: How are picture books good for child development?
Gurdon: They’re superb for building brains (as I noted earlier), for introducing a surprisingly vast variety of words, and for inculcating empathy and fostering long attention spans. And they’re a brilliant, simple tool for bringing adults and children together for an activity that is nurturing and enriching.
Lopez: Books are expensive. How does this work for a family that’s just getting by paycheck to paycheck?
Gurdon: Books are expensive if you buy them brand new, that’s true, but they’re inexpensive at used-book stores and free at the library, and often kids can bring them home from school. It’s also true that the goodness of reading aloud does not require a huge supply of books — often kids are happiest hearing the same stories over and over and over — and in a pinch almost any text will do.
Lopez: Can churches and communities (even simply of friends with children) do something to help with the cause of reading aloud?
Gurdon: For sure. There are wonderful charities working to spread the word — groups like the Family Reading Partnership, in Ithaca, N.Y., and Reach Out and Read, which makes books available to young families through pediatricians. In my dream world, reading aloud would be the norm for every child, no matter their family’s type, background, or economic resources. Norms are created by people practicing them — so the more we can, each of us, slip books and a bit of reading aloud into our daily life, the more we become role models and help establish that norm.
Lopez: If you didn’t get read to as a child, or have lost the patience for reading much more than scrolling down a Twitter feed, there’s hope yet?
Gurdon: There is always hope — and in this case, there are simple steps that will allow you to pursue the hoped-for thing. If the desire is to reconnect with someone you love, to join them — in a manner of speaking — in poetry or literature . . . If the desire is to be more present, more “in the moment,” and to savor life . . . If the desire is to break through what Virginia Woolf called “the cotton wool” of the daily grind, you literally have only to pick up a book and begin.
Lopez: “For frazzled adults in midlife, whose attention is yanked in a thousand directions, taking time to read aloud can be like applying a soothing balm to the soul”: What if this sounds a bit silly to a frazzled midlifer?
Gurdon: Sure — it might! That’s fine. If the idea of reading aloud as a balm seems silly, it’s nothing to the momentary weirdness of actually doing it — at first. But skeptics would be surprised, I suspect, by how quickly the awkwardness subsides and the pleasure of the words begins to steal over them and the listener. The physiological benefits of shared reading that I detail in the book apply to everyone, even cynics.
Lopez: “For older adults in later life, its effects are so consoling and invigorating as to make it seem like a health tonic, or even a kind of medicine.” How can we all consider being a solution in the lives of those older than us?
Gurdon: We can read to them. It is a remarkable way to connect when conversation is difficult or awkward, or when a person is confined by age or illness to home or a hospital bed. It is a beautiful thing to do for someone who can no longer see well, and such a gift when the book itself — or perhaps the poem — allows the listener to revisit old times. A relative of mine read children’s books in German to her Leipzig-born mother at the end of her life when she lay, cradling a baby doll, in a nursing-home bed. It was an impossibly fragile time made lovely by the reading.
Lopez: Our friend the late Kate O’Beirne always admired your talent for lifting up family life in your writing. Do you see your writing that way? How can we do more of that for families?
Gurdon: I didn’t know that! How wonderful! It’s funny — when I was young I didn’t foresee having a family, let alone a large-ish one, and so each new chapter, from marriage to baby number 1 and onward, has come, in some respects, as a marvelous surprise full of unexpected plot twists. My essays about family life are really a kind of travel writing, I suppose, in which I’ve tried to take readers along on the adventure. How can we all do more of it?
Oh, I think: Embrace family life, even the rotten bits, with as much zest and gusto as possible. Try to keep a sense of humor. If you don’t have children, you can raise up family life by smiling at kids and parents when you see them. You can smile at old people who get in your way, or who take too long to park at the supermarket. You can be on the side of love.
Lopez: Looking at the quotes with which you open the book: How can the soul be contained in the human voice [quoting Jorge Luis Borges]?
Gurdon: It’s another cheeky invocation of the transcendent, but of course metaphorical! The voice is invisible, yet it can caress. It is fugitive, yet powerful. It can show ugliness and cruelty and also carry surpassing tenderness. A voice is intimate and distinct, instantly recognizable to those who love and know the person. It is a kind of signature, revealing of the inner self.
Lopez: You also quote Ursula K. Leguin: “Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone. It has to be made, like bread, remade all the time, made anew.” Why?
Gurdon: Isn’t that a beautiful quotation? It conveys such liberating truth. We tend to think of relationships as being established or not — when in reality all relationships are in some degree of flux. All of us has the power to foster love in ourselves for other people, and to kindle love in other people. By making an effort, we can draw closer. In making no effort, we risk drifting away. For me, Ursula LeGuin’s words apply to the daily practice of reading aloud. It’s an act of devotion that endlessly refreshes the supply of love.