Francesco Spagnol considers our long-forgotten habit of reading aloud.
“Around a campfire and over mammoth steaks, our prehistoric ancestors were already telling tall tales. […] Sharing stories is what makes humans human: more than the fire, it was the campfire that allowed Homo sapiens to come together and create tribes, cities and states.” Such an emphatic opening line might confuse many readers, especially the ones who feel unsure about the kind of book they have just come across.
In fact, classifying prose anthology To Read Aloud (Head of Zeus, 2017) is quite difficult: is it a collection of stories, as suggested by the introduction? Is it rather an anthology of extracts, as the table of contents might hint? Or is it some strange kind of “literary toolkit”, as the subtitle says? It is probably a mixture of all the above.
What we can say for certain is that Francesco Dimitri (Italian author of Pan and Alice in Steamland) cares very much about stories, and with his new work intends to draw attention to a long-forgotten habit: the act of reading aloud.
Nowadays it is a widely accepted truth that reading is meant to be done silently and mentally, but this hasn’t always been the case. In fact, the shift to silent reading is considered a relatively recent change in the history of humanity, and it is now certain that our ancestors used to read aloud up until just a few centuries ago. It was probably only during the seventeenth century that the habit of reading aloud definitively began its decline in favour of silent reading.
Nonetheless, reading aloud has never lost its attraction; even during the nineteenth century, in spite of their poverty, Cuban miners would still be very much willing to pay money to a reader in order to hear stories while they worked.
It is the author himself who explains these things to his audience of thirty on the lower ground floor of a wonderful bookshop. On Thursday 1st February we celebrated World Read Aloud Day, and Waterstones Gower Street organised a special event led by Francesco Dimitri himself: an event called ‘A Night of Reading Aloud’. It is with stories of this kind that Dimitri starts introducing us to the core of his peculiar experiment: a night of well-mannered, speed dating-style readings.
As he proceeds deeper into his introduction, we learn that in the past few years a huge number of studies have emerged, demonstrating the critical importance of reading stories to children. It helps them on many levels: from improving their language and vocabulary development to creating social bonds, not to mention the mere pleasure of hearing someone telling tales.
But what about reading to adults? Much less attention has been given to this field, which is understandable — after all, the crucial point at which a human being needs to be read to is in their first years of their life. Nonetheless, there is no reason why a grown-up individual should not be capable of enjoying being read stories, and this is exactly the point around which Dimitri has built his new book.
When the art of reading aloud is practised among adults, it produces different — but no less important — effects. For instance, through sustained attention given to the present moment, it has much in common with the aspirational practice of mindfulness. Even better — it does so without you even noticing. Reading aloud forces you to focus solely on the present, no matter the role you are playing.
As a reader, you have to perform a (hopefully) very common action in a (probably) very uncommon way, which requires a fully-concentrated mind. It is strange both to hear your voice and to know that someone else is listening uniquely to you for a few minutes. As a listener, you have to concentrate on the voice of someone else, trying to plunge into the story while being conscious that someone is reading just for you.
Dimitri reaches the end of his introductory speech, and suddenly asks us to elect a stranger as our first partner and sit down in couples. The room is filled with about thirty chairs, all arranged in groups of two, side by side, facing each other. As we take our places, a bit puzzled by the unusual situation, the organisers pour us some wine.
We are ready to start the first round: within each pair, one person will be the Reader and the other will be the Readee. The latter will choose a chapter, while the former will pick a passage from that chapter. Then Readers start reading – it’s as simple as that.
After the first round, everybody stands up and changes partner. The same happens after the second round, which is just like the first except for the greater length of the pieces. Finally, after a second swap, the third round begins: now, the Readee is invited to wear a blindfold. It is not compulsory, of course, but none of the participants pulls back: we are all enjoying the experiment, driven by an unexpected mix of excitement and nostalgia.
The book, as we have now discovered, is built strategically: the passages are organised into nine sections according to thematic criteria. We find sections such as Loss, Nature, Wonder and many others, all of them containing about eight to ten pieces. We discover a few ancient authors (such as Cicero and Epicurus), several celebrated names (Tolkien, Wilde, Carroll), but above all a huge majority of lesser known writers.
There are many different themes, of course, but what makes all of these pieces similar to each other is their implicit oral quality, namely an elusive attribute that may equally originate from their rhythm, subject or simply undefined aural nature. It is around this oral quality that Francesco Dimitri tried — with good results — to shape his book.
The night at Waterstones has been a great success, too. Whether it was because of the splendid choice of excerpts, the special atmosphere created by the organisers, or just the magical act of reading and being read to, everything worked beyond all expectations. The first — and shorter — round served as a warm up to get everyone in the right mood, but starting from the second even the most sceptic among us were completely absorbed in the game.
By the end of the night, the room was filled with the chatters of happy, surprised participants: we all had found out how natural it is, once you start reading aloud with a stranger, to overcome embarrassment and formalities, and how easy it is to find aspects that unite us all.
The importance of telling stories is all but unknown to writers, especially in the context of fantasy. Philip Pullman, at the presentation of his new book La Belle Sauvage, has recently pointed out the importance of reading to children, while also publishing the self-explanatory Daemon Voices: Essays on Storytelling. Silvana De Mari, on the other hand, has always made clear in her novels how the act of telling stories can create bonds and give strength even in the most desperate situations. But Francesco Dimitri has gone further, shaping an entire book around the plain concept that reading aloud is incredibly beneficial and at the same time extremely easy.
As you read these lines, World Read Aloud Day has sadly passed, and so has that splendid night in the company of Francesco Dimitri. However, luckily for you, the primary message of his book is precisely that such nights are not that hard to replicate, and the final section has been written with the sole purpose of giving advice to anyone interested. Since I’ve already tried, believe me when I say it is really simple to organise a personal ‘Read Aloud party’. So get yourselves a copy, gather some friends and give it a try. Who knows? You might find yourselves surprised.
“Your next ‘human moment’ begins now”.