Ever since we’ve started this blog, I’ve had a flood of memories come back to me about our experiences of reading aloud as a family. And although I have always appreciated the value my mom placed on literature, it’s taken me a long time to realize that it was our ritual of reading aloud in particular that both shaped our family dynamic and my own love for books. Accordingly, today’s post is a glimpse into what it was like growing up in a read-aloud family.
For as far back in my childhood as I can remember, we ended each evening by reading aloud as a family. Usually my mom read aloud to us, but sometimes my brother and I also took turns reading. We began by reading simple picture books, then chapter books like the Twins series and the Little Britches books. Along with these books, we also read some more modern titles. Eventually we worked our way up to authors such as Melville, Dickens, and Scott and later on, Wendell Berry.
Reading aloud was an activity that brought us together at the end of each day, and gave us a sense of unity as a family. Because we were all invested in the books we were reading, we all looked forward to this nightly tradition and the time we were able to spend together then.
My older brother and I could not have been more dissimilar while we were growing up, but reading aloud gave us a shared interest and goal. It served as a way for us to do something together without bickering or becoming annoyed at one other. It also gave us things to talk about, and helped us develop more sympathy for each other.
In retrospect, I think reading aloud was especially important for our family dynamic after my dad died. This ritual gave my mom a way to spend quality time with both of us together every single day and to check in on us in an indirect and subtle manner. So many aspects of our family life had been thrown off kilter after his death that the constancy and comfort of that one ritual was really critical for all of us, playing a valuable role in our healing process.
Of course, there were always plenty of good books available to us for independent reading, as well, which we did more or less as we pleased. My mom mostly took a “laissez faire” approach to independent reading since she wanted us to actually enjoy it. She figured that it would be best to let us come to reading in our own time (which we both did). But reading aloud was non-negotiable.
So all throughout our childhoods, she read books of the very highest quality aloud to us, one chapter at a time. Many of the books that we read aloud together I went back to a year or so later and re-read by myself. But reading these books aloud together was an entirely different experience and one that was valuable in itself.
One powerful outcome of reading aloud together was that we processed difficult topics together. I particularly remember reading books like The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom and Mildred Taylor’s Logan series (Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Let the Circle Be Unbroken, etc.). These books address hard subjects, but ones that are important for children to be aware of and to talk about. We often discussed what we read afterward and would refer back to it in later conversations.
Simply sharing the experience of reading these hard chapters also brought us closer together. I don’t think I will ever forget about the revelation about being grateful for fleas in The Hiding Place, or the terror their family felt. I was also very, very glad to have my family there when reading about those experiences.
Part of the joy of reading is being able to share what you read with others, and spending time reading aloud as a family enabled us to do just that. Over the years we shed many tears of sorrow as well as tears of laughter together. We also read scores of outstanding books that enriched our hearts and our minds alike. Best of all, though, we were able to share these experiences as a family.
Do you have a favorite memory of your family reading aloud when you were growing up? Is reading aloud something you do with your children now? Please let us know in a comment below — we love hearing from our readers!
In the following essay 19th century preacher, social reformer and abolitionist, Henry Ward Beecher (brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe) makes a case for the owning of books.
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We form judgments of men from little things about their houses of which the owner perhaps never thinks. In earlier years, when travelling in the West, where taverns were scarce and in some places unknown, and every settler's house was a house of "Entertainment," it was a matter of some importance and some experience to select wisely where you would put up. And we always looked for flowers. If there were no trees for shade, no patch of flowers in the yard, we were suspicious of the place. But, no matter how rude the cabin or rough the surroundings, if we saw that the window held a little trough for flowers, and that some vines twilled about strings let down from the eaves, we were confident that there was some taste and carefulness in the log-cabin. In a new country, where people have to tug for a living, no one will take the trouble to rear flowers unless the love of them is pretty strong; and this taste, blossoming out of plain and uncultivated people is itself like a clump of harebells growing out of the seams of a rock. We were seldom misled. A patch of flowers came to signify kind people, clean beds, and good bread.
But in other states of society other signs are more significant. Flowers about a rich man's house may signify only that he has a good gardener, or that he has refined neighbors, and does what he sees them do. But men are not accustomed to buy books unless they want them. If on visiting the dwelling of a man of slender means we find that he contents himself with cheap carpets, and very plain furniture, in order that he may purchase books, he rises at once in our esteem. Books are not made for furniture, but there is nothing else that so beautifully furnishes a house. The plainest row of books that cloth or paper ever covered is more significant of refinement than the most elaborately carved étagère or sideboard.
Give us a house furnished with books rather than furniture! Both, if you can, but books at any rate! To spend several days in a friend's house, and hunger for something to read, while you are treading on costly carpets, and sitting upon luxurious chairs, and sleeping upon down, is as if one were bribing your body for the sake of cheating your mind. Is it not pitiable to see a man growing rich, augmenting the comforts of home, and lavishing money on ostentatious upholstery, upon the table, upon everything but what the soul needs? We know of many and many a rich man's house where it would not be safe to ask for the commonest English classics. A few gairish annuals on the table, a few pictorial monstrosities, together with the stock religious books of his "persuasion," and that is all! No poets, no essayists, no historians, no travels or biographies, no select fictions, or curious legendary lore. But the wall-paper cost three dollars a roll, and the carpets four dollars a yard!
Books are the windows through which the soul looks out. A house without books is like a room without windows. No man has a right to bring up his children without surrounding them with books, if he has the means to buy them. It is a wrong to his family. He cheats them! Children learn to read by being in the presence of books. The love of knowledge comes with reading and grows upon it. And the love of knowledge, in a young mind, is almost a warrant against the inferior excitement of passions and vices.
Let us pity these poor rich men who live barrenly in great, bookless houses! Let us congratulate the poor that, in our day, books are so cheap that a man may every year add a hundred volumes to his library for the price of what his tobacco and his beer would cost him. Among the earliest ambitions to be excited in clerks, workmen, journeymen, and, indeed, among all that are struggling up in life from nothing to something, is that of owning, and constantly adding to, a library of good books. A little library growing larger every year is an honorable part of a young man's history. It is a man's duty to have books. A library is not a luxury, but one of the necessaries of life.
─ From Eyes and Ears, a collection of essays by Henry Ward Beecher, published in 1862.