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University Relations

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May 13, 2005
Contact: Roger Martin, KU Center for Research, (785) 864-7239.

Roger Martin Commentary: Grownups can read books aloud too

Last month, the novel "Don Quixote" was read aloud at a public event in Madrid. It was a birthday present to the book, which had just turned 400.

The events brought to mind two public readings in Lawrence of "Moby-Dick" organized by University of Kansas English professor Beth Schultz. Then there were the readings of the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey" arranged by KU Honors Program director Stan Lombardo.

The event I'm waiting for, though, is a reading of "Manas," the national epic of the central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan. Although it's a thousand years old, it wasn't written down until the 1920s.

That's quite a record, given that the "Manas" epic is 18 times longer than the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey" combined.

What is it about hearing and reading great literature aloud that's helped the habit to persist?

For centuries reading aloud wasn't a quirk. Just the opposite, in fact. Lombardo tells me that for the Greeks, ALL reading was done out loud -- even reading alone in a room.

The story goes that St. Augustine one day walked in on St. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan. Augustine was blown away. Ambrose was reading silently. Augustine hadn't seen that before.

Today, of course, reading aloud is treated as something you do with kids more than grownups. But Lombardo and Schultz speak of the pleasure, even to adults, of a read-aloud.

Schultz says, "Being read to reminds me of childhood happiness, commanding a parent's full attention, entering through words into the parent's world, sharing with the parent in the discussion about the story."

Another benefit of listening to someone read is that it trains attention. Lombardo says the ancients were great listeners: "It was expected that if you attended a performance or play, you'd be able later to recite much of it to a friend."
Sometimes the attention demanded by great words as they paint vivid pictures deepens into something like a trance.

Beyond the pictures, the very sound of the words may be part of the effect.
Greg Simpson, chair of the KU Department of Psychology, says he loved reading the book "Goodnight Moon" to his daughter because its rhythms are so restful.

He says, "I could barely make it through the book myself without dropping off."
Of course reading aloud isn't always calming. Natalie Goldberg, author of "Writing Down the Bones," describes a more inspiring outcome:

" I explained to the class that often when you take on the voice of a great writer, speak his or her words aloud, you are taking on the voice of inspiration, you are breathing their breath at the moment of their heightened feelings, that all that writers ultimately do is pass on their breath."

In a small group of friends, reading a great piece of literature aloud can have about it a pleasing quality of ritual that is absent from many of our lives.

Lombardo recalls he and a few friends reading Dante's "Inferno" aloud one Good Friday.

If you are like me, you multi-task too much. You feel as if you're drowning in media images and sounds.

To read a great book aloud, to enter its writer's imagination and to talk about that with friends is an antidote to a world in which words more often weigh us down than give us wings.


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