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Reading: A solitary pleasure?

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Will Gompertz | 09:06 UK time, Monday, 6 September 2010

At the end of this month a book is being published by Chatto & Windus called A Little Aloud: An Anthology of Prose and Poetry for Reading Aloud to Someone You Care For.

The blurb on the inside cover suggests a list of people you might consider reading aloud to: your partner, an elderly relative, a sick parent or child. Frankly I can only see a mixture of dismay and disgust upon the face of any of the above should I hove around the corner, book in hand, reciting lustily for their benefit.

After the age of eight or so reading becomes a solitary pleasure. A chance to escape into another world or to have a thought articulated in such a way that the author instantly becomes someone with whom you assume great affinity.

Television, music, theatre and movies tend to be improved by the shared experience. Books and art are generally ill served by participation en masse.

At least that is what I had always thought, but this book is making me re-evaluate my position on the subject. The publisher is donating all royalties from the book to the Reader Organisation, a charity that promotes reading aloud for the good of your health.

Eastendes' book club

They advance the argument that hearing stories read aloud can aid recuperation, improve mental health and bring great literature to sections of society who have hitherto found it inaccessible.


They promote their aims well enough on their website (although the blog about Milo the cat seemed erroneous), but it is in the book that their theories on reading aloud start to persuade. At the end of each short thematic section there is a brief entry called Reading Notes.

These are not, as you might imagine, useful academic pointers elucidating on the just-read texts, but recorded comments from discussions that have taken place after a reading-aloud session overseen by The Reader Group.

The comments do not provide any great insights into the stories and poems, but they do give a sense of the work of The Reader Group. Some comments are naive, others amusing, but all are heartfelt. The groups, captivated by the literature, were having a good time.

A much better time in fact, as I have been led to believe, than many who attend book groups. The main complaint I hear from friends who are members of book groups is that nobody ever wants to discuss the set book. Instead they want to talk about schools, or houses or how long it took to reduce the delicious tomato and basil sauce being served. Or worse; the group is dominated by some self-appointed literary critic who bores and bullies in equal measure.

Maybe it would be better then to have a reading group, where the host chooses the book / poem, reads a passage out and then chairs a conversation? At the end of the year the group could publish an anthology of everything they have read to each other and post it on the net for friends to share.

If their selections were anywhere near as good as those chosen by Angela Macmillan for A little Aloud - Chekhov, Lessing, Heaney, Dickens - then their friends would be in for a very pleasant surprise.

Now, is everyone sitting comfortably?


  • Comment number 1.

    Prior to our current age of near universal literacy, as well as almost unlimited TV and radio, the storyteller was an important part of culture. We can therefore see a long tradition of listening to others and being enthralled.
    Long may it continue!

  • Comment number 2.

    I read aloud to my husband from books I think are great, but which he's struggled to get started on because the first chapter is too turgid. Just a chapter or so - if the book grabs him he'll take over from there.

    I've also read whole books onto cd for my grandmother to listen to (she's nearly blind and uses audio books extensively as is). I'm just repaying the favour - she read children's books for me when I was a child.

  • Comment number 3.

    Tomato and Basil 'Source'???

  • Comment number 4.

    "A chance to escape into another world"... that pretty much sums reading up for me.. I can't imagine even being able to imagine while somebody else is reading to me.. perhaps it is because I'm more of a visual rather than an auditory person. Still, I guess a soothing voice can be quite therapeutic for some.

  • Comment number 5.

    i have just read Jonathon Livingstone Seagull to my 7 year old daughter. I have to say that reading it aloud to her actually improved the experience of the story for me. I brought it to life in a way that just does not happen when reading alone in my head. She enjoyed it too. In fact I have barred Jacqueline Wilson from the house (well, her books!) as I cannot bear to read her aloud anymore (my eldest is 16).

    Any ideas for books that would appeal to me as well as my 7 year old?

  • Comment number 6.

    notsupermum - try The Iron Man by Ted Hughes. I read it to a bunch of kids aged between 5 and 9 on holiday this year. A joy to read aloud. Beautiful, scary and exciting.

  • Comment number 7.

    I was with you right up to the mention of Chekhov, Lesing, Heaney and Dickens. Inflict those on me and I will snore at you - loudly!
    Far better to work through Pratchett, Swift, Chesterton and Fry - especially if you have to impersonate the Nac MacFeegle


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