Reading Aloud, Listening Together

Reading Aloud, Listening Together

June is National Audiobook Month. If you haven’t heard of it, though, you aren’t alone. This annual celebration of the spoken word was once promoted by the likes of David Sedaris; now it’s hardly even recognized by the Audio Publishers Association.

I’ve been ruminating on this semi-obscure fact since it came to my attention. If Audible and the ubiquity of free podcasts are any indication, the spoken word itself is by no means in decline. Perhaps National Audiobook Month, which strategically coincides with summer reading and complements long family road trips seems less exciting, less pertinent, now that we can all listen to, read or watch whatever we want, whenever we fancy. We can entertain ourselves, individually, forever.

And to some extent, that’s fine. Let me be the first to admit that, were it not for audiobooks and their cousin podcasts to entertain and distract me, my house would be a permanent wreck. Still, when I think back on listening to audiobooks with others, I can’t help but feel that I’m missing out. Communal listening to narratives is an integral part of our cultural heritage. The stories we know and love were handed down to us as oral tradition; we well know that foundational works of Western literature like Beowolf and Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey were first passed mouth to mouth, as were the fairy tales that deeply inform our popular culture.

Listening together helps create long-lived, shared knowledge. It establishes bonds between listeners. In the nineteenth century, reading aloud and listening were treated as necessary domestic activities. In her study of The Woman Reader, Kate Flint quotes prolific nineteenth-century author Sarah Stickney Ellis, describing a “thoroughly united and intelligent family, the female members of which are busily at work, while a father or brother reads aloud to them some interesting book approved by the mother, and delighted in by her daughters’” (100). Ellis, with her severe politics (she firmly believed women should serve their spouses and remain in the home) might not be something to aspire to, but she nonetheless transmits to us a revered nineteenth-century pastime. Books themselves echo her sentiment. Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park depicts several reading aloud scenes, as does Charlotte Brontë’s Villette.

Communal listening extended far outside the home in Victorian England and America. Thousands packed theaters to listen to Charles Dickens read from his works. Annie Thackeray recalls

“Quite immediately the story began. Copperfield and Steerforth, Yarmouth and the fishermen and Peggotty, and then the rising storm, all was there before us . . .The lights shone from the fisherman’s home; then after laughter the terror fell, the storm rose; finally, we were all breathlessly watching from the shore, and (this I remember most vividly of all) a great wave seemed to fall splashing on to the platform overhead.” (qtd. in Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dickens)

Thackeray describes listening as a kind of sharing: shared laughter, shared terror and shared breathlessness. Listening evoked togetherness. It created commonality.

Listening as a shared experience, also served to distract from monotonous hours of work. The opportunity to listen was once so valued that, in 19th- and early 20th-century cigar factories, workers pooled their money to pay a lector who would read to them everything from newspapers, to Karl Marx, to Don Quixote. Books became shared knowledge for manual laborers at the same time that they enabled those laborers to share intellectual ground with professional writers and thinkers—not unlike Books@Work seminars. Unfortunately, this deeply-cherished listening tradition, which educated manual laborers in literature and in politics, put them at odds with the factory owners who eventually dismantled the lector system.

In the days before television and film, listening offered after hours entertainment for family and friends. It gave people something to do in the period between work and bed. It helped them become their best selves. More than this, communal listening had the potential to create bonds between people. Listeners, together with their readers, established a font of knowledge and imagined experience that they could all draw from. Listening to audiobooks as a family pastime did something similar—we’ll explore this more next week.

Want more? Listen to Cigar Stories on the NPR’s the Kitchen Sisters. Or, hear Seamus Heaney read from Beowulf.

Image: Laura Muntz Lyall, Interesting Story, 1898, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

Cecily Erin Hill

Cecily Erin Hill

Cecily Hill is the Project Director, NEH for All at the National Humanities Alliance and former member of the Books@Work team.