Rediscovering the Lost Power
of Reading Aloud

Meghan Cox Gurdon Traces the History of Oral Storytelling

At the British Museum in London, down a long string of galleries filled with Greek antiquities, there is a glass case that contains a glossy black-and-ocher amphora, resembling a jug or vase. The object was made by a craftsman in Athens sometime early in the Golden Age, around 490–480 BC, and it’s decorated with a figure on either side. The first is a musician in long skirts and a checkered tunic shown in full-length profile. We seem to have caught him just as he blows into a reed instrument.

On the other side, a man in pleated robes stands in a position of relaxed command, with one arm thrust out and resting on a tall wooden staff. The man’s mouth is open, and if you look closely, you can see a tiny arc of text springing from his lips. Translated, the words read: “Once upon a time in Tiryns . . .”

This figure is a rhapsode, or “stitcher of songs,” and a kind of living prefiguration of the act of reading aloud. In ancient Greece, a rhapsode did not read from a book, however. He was the book. His memory held, among other works, the two great epics of Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey. He would pull them from the shelf and read them aloud, so to speak, when he recited them.

The Homeric tales, loved to this day, are terrific creations. They brim with action, drama, stealth, deceit (and with manifestations of honor and dishonor so distinct from our own as to seem bizarre). The Iliad encompasses the ten years of the Trojan War, when the massed armies of the Greek kingdoms besieged the walled city of Troy. In its verses we meet sulky, ferocious Achilles, noble Prince Hector, handsome Paris, and lovely Helen. The second great Homeric tale, The Odyssey, follows Odysseus, wiliest of the Greeks, over the ten years it takes him after the conquest of Troy to reach his home island of Ithaca and his clever, long-suffering wife, Penelope. During his travels, Odysseus contends with mutinous crewmen, the erotic temptations of Circe and Calypso, and monsters such as the man-eating cyclops Polyphemus and the homicidal Sirens. At one point, Odysseus also has to wrest his men free of the addictive, obliterating pleasures of the lotus flower.

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Today, if you pick up a printed and bound copy of The Iliad or The Odyssey, what you may notice first is not the richness of the storytelling but the sheer size of the thing. The epics are long and sprawling, and though they are strewn with mnemonic devices that would work as mental bookmarks for the would-be memorizer—vivid phrases and epithets such as “gray-eyed Athena,” or “Zeus who wields the aegis”—it is still incredible to think that once upon a time people committed them to memory. Not only would a good rhapsode have both stories stored in his head, but he would be able to pick up either tale at any point and recite onward without a hitch. This is mastery of a sort that has become foreign to most modern people.

With schools having largely withdrawn from the practice of making students memorize poetry, few of us today have anything approaching the interior resources of a rhapsode. You might argue that we don’t need them: books are inexpensive and widely available, and we can use the Internet to look up pieces of writing that we may have forgotten or that we want to read. The rhapsodes themselves were obsolete long before the digital age was a glimmer in the eye of the future. Still, though they’ve long since disappeared, their role in the ancient world is a reminder that in reading aloud, we are taking part in one of the oldest and grandest traditions of humankind. Indeed, the long and rich lineage of reading aloud, as a type of oral storytelling, stretches back to the days before anything was written down.

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Like a person today who picks up a novel and reads out loud, rhapsodes were in the business of transmitting, not inventing. The opening words of The Odyssey—“Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story”—make this clear: The storyteller is acknowledging at the start that the tale he tells is not his own, and that he hopes for divine assistance in telling it well. You or I may not take such precautions when we open a storybook and read the words, but, like a rhapsode, we too are serving as a kind of artistic medium. We are drawing upon a story not of our own creation, and the story travels through us—through the concentration of our faculties, the inflection of our voices, the warmth and presence of our bodies—to reach the listener.

Long before Johannes Gutenberg and his printing press, the principal storage facility for history, poetry, and folktales was the human head.

It is a marvelous thing: simple, profound, and very, very ancient. What Salman Rushdie calls “the liquid tapestry” of storytelling is one of the great human universals. So far as we can tell, starting in Paleolithic times, in every place where there are or have been people, there has been narrative. Here is Gilgamesh, the Sumerian epic recorded on clay tablets in cuneiform script 1,500 years before Homer. Here are the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, vast Sanskrit poems dating from the 9th and 8th centuries BC. Here too is the thousand-year-old Anglo-Saxon legend Beowulf, the Icelandic Völsunga saga, the Malian epic Sundiata, the Welsh Mabinogion, the Persian, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian ferment of The Thousand and One Nights, and the 19th-century Finnish and Karelian epic the Kalevala. This list is necessarily partial.

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Once upon a time, none of these stories had yet been fixed on a page (or a clay tablet), but were carried in the physical bodies of the people who committed them to memory. Long before Johannes Gutenberg and his printing press, and 1,000 years before cloistered monks and their illuminated manuscripts, the principal storage facility for history, poetry, and folktales was the human head. And the chief means of transmitting that cultural wealth, from generation to generation, was the human voice.

In ancient Greece, the voices belonged to rhapsodes; in ancient India, to charioteer bards called sutas. Elsewhere were skalds (Nordic history poets) and rakugoka (Japanese storytellers), along with the jongleurs, minstrels, and troubadours of medieval Europe. Shamans passed on the stories of tribal people native to North America. In West Africa there was, and is, an itinerant class of griots, the traveling tale-tellers and musicians who have been called living archives.

Even as human societies confided their stories and histories to print, people continued to rely on the voice to make sense of what was written. Until the tenth century AD, in fact, writing was not something to take in through the eyes and consider in silence with the mind. Rather, it was a mechanism for a kind of reverse dictation. To read at all was to read out loud. Sumerian cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphics, manuscripts in Aramaic, Arabic, and Hebrew, the illuminated Christian Gospels, the Talmud, the Koran—with these forms and collections of writing came the expectation that a person would read them out loud and would, in a manner of speaking, conjure their reality. In his book A History of Reading, Alberto Manguel points out that Aramaic and Hebrew, the “primordial” languages of the Bible, draw no distinction between reading and speaking. The same word stands for both. Buddhism and Hinduism also give an exalted place to the spoken word. What, if not reading aloud, are the guided meditations of Buddhism? What else is happening when, at the spring festival of Rama Navami, Hindus listen to readings from the Ramayana? (As a late-19th-century Anglican visitor to India marveled, “Much merit is supposed to be derived even from the hearing of it.”)

The liberated word is a marvelous thing, because almost everyone can take it in without making any effort.

Silent reading of the sort we practice with our books and laptops and cellphones was once considered outlandish, a mark of eccentricity. Plutarch writes of the way that Alexander the Great perplexed his soldiers, around 330 BC, by reading without utterance a letter he had received from his mother. The men’s confusion hints at the rarity of the spectacle. Six hundred years later, Augustine of Hippo witnessed the Milanese bishop (and fellow future saint) Ambrose contemplating a manuscript in his cell. Augustine was amazed by the old man’s peculiar technique. “When he read,” Augustine marveled in his Confessions, “his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still.”

For Augustine, as Alberto Manguel observes, “the spoken word was an intricate part of the text itself.” We don’t think that way now. For us, the written word has the real weight and gravitas. We joke: “It must be true, I saw it on the Internet,” in an echo of the old line about the sanctity of print.

Yet as Dante observed, speech—the words we say, the pauses between them, and our inflection—is our native language. Writing is the crystallizing of liquid thought and speech, and therefore a kind of translation. When a girl in modern times listens to her mother or father read an abridged version of The Iliad or The Odyssey, in a curious way she is hearing Homer translated at least four times over. What began as spoken Greek became written Greek, which was translated into written English, and then, in a final transformation, was freed from the page and set loose in the air as spoken English.

The liberated word is a marvelous thing, because almost everyone can take it in without making any effort. The reader (or troubadour or skald) must expend some energy to present a text, but for the auditor there is no requirement other than to supply his attention. If you are listening, it makes no difference whether you’re hearing a narrative taken from someone’s memory, à la rhapsode, or a text read from the page of a book. In either case, you are getting the story in its living, spoken form.

Speech is the way language comes to all of us first, in the beginning. We hear it. Then we speak it. Only later and with considerable study will we learn to read and write it. As we know from the troubling statistics about American high-school graduates, not everyone reaches proficiency. According to the United Nations, about 14 percent of the world’s adult population is unable to read. Yet if illiteracy is a barrier to economic advancement, it has never been an obstacle to the enjoyment of storytelling, either for unlettered adults or for children who may not be old enough, deft enough, or motivated enough to decode a printed text. For them, as for the men and women in 14th-century England who gathered to hear Chaucer read from his Canterbury Tales, or the villagers in 18th-century Mali who came running when the griot turned up, the oral tradition offers sanctuary and delight.

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How do stories begin? “Once upon a time,” as the rhapsode on the amphora in the British Museum is shown to say. These are the real magic words, whether in that most familiar form, or in a variant heard in Indonesia, “It was . . . and it was not,” or in the Jamaican way of opening stories, “Once it was a time, a very good time. Monkey chewed tobacco and he spit white lime . . .” Faster than a genie, the words conjure a portal and take us through it, transporting us from the here and now to the realm of storytelling, a place that may be fantastic or realistic or some combination of the two. “Who can catalog the myriad ways that human beings use to signal, ‘Now, I am telling you a story’?” asks the literary critic Laura Miller. “The speaker leaves off ordinary talk, the listener recalibrates her attention, and both enter into a relationship older than the memory of our race. A story takes us, for a while, out of time and the particularities of our own existence. The initiation into this ritual might come as a pause, a change of tone . . . [and it] tells us that a special kind of language, the language of story, has begun.”

One autumn afternoon not so long ago, the initiation into this ritual took the form of a school principal handing a microphone to a 12-year-old boy who was wearing shorts, a T-shirt, and turquoise socks. Throughout the morning, the fifth-grader and the other pupils at an all-boys school in suburban Maryland had competed in preliminary rounds of a tournament called “the Bard.” I’d watched the younger boys taking turns reciting poetry in the sunshine at the foot of a small stone amphitheater. Some of their pieces were short: at least two boys confined themselves to the six brief lines of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Eagle”; but I’d also seen a fourth-grader reciting the G. K. Chesterton poem “Lepanto” for what seemed like a good ten minutes. The 50-odd little scholars fanned out on the steps had surprised me with their attentiveness, though the vigilance of their teachers probably also had a pacifying effect.

Now everyone had jammed into the gym to hear the finalists.

You can imagine the roar. Five hundred boys between the ages of nine and eighteen were jostling for seating. It is perhaps harder to imagine (but I promise it happened) the total silence that fell when the principal put the microphone into the hand of that fifth-grader. This boy had won the middle-school preliminary round. Now he began to recount one of the most poignant farewells in literature, from book 6 of The Iliad.

“‘Hector hurried from the house when she had done speaking, and went down the streets by the same way that he had come,’” the boy recited, loud and clear. “‘When he had gone through the city and had reached the Scaean gates through which he would go out on to the plain, his wife came running towards him.’”

Hector does not know, but suspects, that it may be the last time he sees his wife, Andromache, and their infant son, Astyanax, a child “lovely as a star.” Andromache begs her husband not to go: “Your valor will bring you to destruction; think on your infant son, and on my hapless self who ere long shall be your widow.”

Hector can foresee the awful consequences, but he has to go into battle; honor demands it. In his final moments with his wife, he tries to steel them both for the fates they can expect at the hands of the Greeks: for him, a violent death; for her, enslavement in an invader’s household. He hopes to die first, and be spared the sight of her suffering: “May I lie dead under the barrow that is heaped over my body ere I hear your cry as they carry you into bondage.” Moved by his own words, Hector reaches for his son but Astyanax, frightened by his father’s shining armor and his helmet with its nodding horsehair plume, hides his face in the bosom of his nurse.

“‘His father and mother laughed to see him,’” declaimed the boy in the gym, pacing a little, “‘but Hector took the helmet from his head and laid it all gleaming upon the ground. Then he took his darling child, kissed him, and dandled him in his arms, praying over him the while to Jove and to all the gods.’”

I looked across the gym. Some of the younger boys were fidgeting in their seats, but no one talked or goofed around.

“Jove,” Hector cries, “grant that this my child may be even as myself, chief among the Trojans; let him be not less excellent in strength, and let him rule Ilius [Troy] with his might. Then may one say of him as he comes from battle, ‘The son is far better than the father. May he bring back the blood-stained spoils of him whom he has laid low, and let his mother’s heart be glad.’”

A moment later the scene ended. Feet pounded, hands clapped, throats vibrated, and the bleachers thundered. Through a skinny medium in surprising socks, Homer’s poetry and pathos had reached, as if with a giant hand, from the foreign, distant past to hold these modern boys in its grip.

You might think there could be no real continuity between a bearded rhapsode in classical Greece two-and-a-half millennia ago and a boy in a modern gym. Yet there is a direct line, for reading aloud—its capacity to enthrall and enrich—is not in the look of the thing. It is in the telling.

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Enchanted Hour

From The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud In the Age of Distraction by Meghan Cox Gurdon.  Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © 2019 by Meghan Cox Gurdon. 

Meghan Cox Gurdon
Meghan Cox Gurdon
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 2005. Her work has appeared widely, in publications such as The Washington Examiner, The Daily Telegraph, The Christian Science Monitor, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, and National Review. A graduate of Bowdoin College, she lives in Bethesda, Maryland, with her husband, Hugo Gurdon, and their five children.





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