Category Archives: Reading aloud

Lecturing: an unfashionable art

Next Monday, without shame, I’ll be doing something that many people these days frown on, though it has been a valued part of education for centuries. I’ll be giving a lecture, the first in a course of ten that will run weekly until late October. Lecturing! What a shockingly antiquarian practice!

I’m familiar with the usual arguments against lecturing. It’s said to be an incorrigibly authoritarian, top-down, monologic way of imposing an individual’s views on a docile group of listeners. It supposedly discourages independent learning and gives the lecturer a licence to parade his or her ego.

No doubt all of this can too often be true. But need it always be? Is it self-deceptive to think I understand those potential problems well enough to mitigate them when I stand at a lectern?

Many years ago, in The Making of Literature, I wrote about the importance of ensuring that a teacher engages a class actively in the learning process, combining the roles of “a resource specialist, who puts the learner in contact with useable information, and a response specialist, with whom the learner can negotiate and test particular communications.” The format of a lecture may not always facilitate this kind of engagement, but doesn’t preclude it either. Much depends on the nature of the group, particularly the motivations of its members, the knowledge and interest they bring to a session, and their level of maturity.

This particular course of mine is for the Peel (Mandurah) branch of MALA, the Mature Adults Learning Association. Knowing MALA members well, I can be confident that, while I’m responsible for much of the content that we explore together, they will bring a spirit of active enquiry to what we discuss. I’ve expressed my enthusiasm for groups of this kind in a previous blog post, ‘In Praise of Older Readers.’

In medieval universities a lecture was simply, as the French-derived word suggests, an oral reading from some text along with a commentary on what was being read. Its purpose was to impart knowledge of the text and instruct the audience in how to interpret it. Today, books are so readily available in so many ways that it may seem needless for a lecturer to read aloud even a few select passages from a chosen text. Why not leave it entirely to students to do their own silent reading? Answer: because well-written words sometimes deserve to be voiced. By reading a passage aloud, an experienced lecturer can draw attention to certain nuances of phrasing. This serves to model the process of interpretation. Marks on the page don’t supersede the spoken dimension of language.

The topic for my course is Myth in Literature and Society. ‘Myth’ signifies a range of things, from mere fallacies to fabulous old tales of gods, superheroes, creation and destruction. Why does the word have such diverse meanings? Why do many myths have long-lasting appeal? Why do creative writers go on retelling and adapting mythical stories? What can myths tell us about the societies that produced them, and what relevance can they still have in our own time and place? In exploring such questions, this course draws examples from literary sources, mainly in the western tradition (e.g. Greco-Roman classical drama, poetry and epic; biblical stories; medieval romances; Shakespearean plays), as well as from cultural practices, ancient and modern.

MALA is still accepting late enrolments. If you’re interested, click on this information.

I’ll also be presenting a different lecture course, beginning the following week (on Wed 22nd August), for the Rockingham branch of MALA. This one is on Historical Fiction. Details here.

Hating Ferdinand

What did Spanish fascist leader General Franco and American tough-guy writer Ernest Hemingway have in common? Loving bullfights and hating Ferdinand.

More than eighty years ago a gentle story for children, still popular today, first appeared. Soon afterwards Franco imposed a ban on it. Why? The year of its publication was also the year when the Spanish Civil War erupted, and this whimsical little book could be interpreted as satirising the belligerent attitudes of those in authority. It features a bull with a peaceful temperament.

The Story of Ferdinand (1936), written by Munro Leaf, wonderfully illustrated by Robert Lawson and long acknowledged as a classic of children’s literature, continues to be widely read and frequently reissued. It also goes on attracting film-makers: a new animated Ferdinand movie is due for release tomorrow, but having watched a brief trailer I don’t think this latest screen version will measure up to the one that Walt Disney produced in 1938, let alone to the quality of the original publication. Yesterday I saw a reprint edition in the window of my local bookshop, and it triggered a few thoughts.

You probably know the story, and remember its opening sentences:

Once upon a time in Spain there was a little bull and his name was Ferdinand. All the other little bulls he lived with would run and jump and butt their heads together, but not Ferdinand. He liked to sit just quietly and smell the flowers.

This quiet peace-loving bull infuriated Ernest Hemingway. In reaction to it, he wrote a story called The Faithful Bull (1951), which begins like this:

One time there was a bull and his name was not Ferdinand and he cared nothing for flowers. He loved to fight and he fought with all the other bulls of his own age, or any age, and he was a champion.

It’s immediately obvious – if and only if we know Munro Leaf’s prior text – that Hemingway is attempting from the outset to transform the genre of sentimental, anthropomorphic fables into something more tough-minded. We can already anticipate that this tale of The Faithful Bull will turn out in a similarly unsentimental way. Here is what a Year 11 student wrote about it for an assignment on children’s books – an eloquent passage, which I’ve previously quoted elsewhere:

A strong focus for any reader’s expectations about any story is the way it ends. When we are still quite young we develop set ideas about how stories should work, and this depends a lot on how they conclude. The ‘happy ever after’ convention is almost invariable in books for young readers because writers feel that their readers need reassurance that things will turn out well… The Story of Ferdinand is basically the same in this respect. He goes ‘home’ at the end and is ‘sitting there still’ very contentedly, having survived the dangers of the bullring just by being himself. Conversely, The Faithful Bull overturns our expectations of a happy outcome in a way that would be shocking to a young reader. In fact, just as right from the first sentence it is an anti-Ferdinand book, so its breaking of the conventional ending makes it an anti-children’s book. This matter of expectations and conventions is therefore closely linked with the matter of audience.

Parody depends entirely on a reader’s memory of what is being parodied. If we cannot recognise it, cannot ‘hear’ the remembered language of a prior text, the parodic effect is lost. This point has implications for something I’ve discussed in an earlier blog post: the need for teachers and parents to encourage learning by heart.

Franco and Hemingway had their reasons for hating Ferdinand. Many young readers have responded in the opposite way: absolutely loving Ferdinand. I won’t ever forget an experience I had a long time ago as relief teacher of an infant class, where I encountered in its purest form a reader’s emotional identification with a fictional character. With all the expressiveness at my command, I read The Story of Ferdinand aloud to my wide-eyed young pupils, and when I closed the book there was a chorus of sighs around the room. Then they turned quietly to some little task I’d set – except for one small shy six-year-old, who sidled up to my desk and whispered confidentially, ‘When I grow up I’m going to be a bull.’

Giving voice to print

 

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Tennyson reading aloud – painting by George Howard (Ashmolean)

Imagine a bus full of commuters all reading aloud from their newspapers or books or smartphone email messages. Fortunately we’re spared such a horrible hubbub because people know how to make sense of words without needing to vocalise them.

Yet silent reading, though advantageous in many situations, doesn’t allow some elements of a well-written text to emerge fully.

In the distant past, almost everybody who could read did their reading aloud. In the fourth century AD the bishop of Milan, Ambrose, caused great wonderment because (as Augustine records in his Confessions) ‘when he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning but his voice was silent and his tongue was still.’

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Not until the tenth century did this feat of soundless perusal become the norm, according to Alberto Manguel’s idiosyncratic but fascinating survey A History of Reading. (There’s a critical review of Manguel’s book here.)

Before the advent of printed publications, the usual method of producing a book was that a monk would work arduously in a scriptorium, copying out by hand what was dictated to him or recited by him from the prior text – so, either way, enunciation was part of the transcribing process.

An 8th-century scribe described the physical effort that this required: ‘Three fingers write, two eyes see, one tongue speaks, the entire body labours.’

As Manguel remarks, voicing the written words with someone else present implied a shared reading experience, whereas silent comprehension made it possible for a reader to have a directly private relationship with the text. This change has involved both gain and loss.

Nowadays, it seems, hardly anyone reads aloud unless it’s to young children at bedtime or occasionally – if they’re lucky – in the classroom. I still remember gratefully the Friday afternoon ritual during my last year in primary school , when our teacher would read to us an instalment from some novel. I recall one of them particularly, because the story embeds the same kind of experience: it’s The Otterbury Incident by Cecil Day-Lewis, illustrated by Edward Ardizzone, in which the actions of the main characters (a gang of young boys) are influenced by the one-for-all-and-all-for-one ethical code of a novel that their schoolmaster reads to them – The Three Musketeers. That shared sensation of entering a story-shaped world as the printed word acquired oral form had a powerful effect on me. It inspired me and one of my mates to hand-write together (and bind and illustrate) our own mini-novels, a couple of which the teacher generously read to the class, confirming our sense of literary vocation. Thank you, Mr Callaghan!

I now read aloud every day, usually a few pages from whatever novel is currently in train. I do this partly for the benefit of a particular auditor with eye problems, but I also get a lot out of it myself because the process of giving voice to print requires a slower pace than for silent consumption so that the rhythms can become audible. It means listening attentively to the way in which the sentences are constructed. My remarks in a recent post on the language of Jim Crace’s Harvest mightn’t have occurred to me if I hadn’t been reading that novel aloud.

So it’s a good thing that audio recordings of many books have become widely available in recent years. They are a great boon. of course, to people with impaired vision. More than that, an increasing number of readers choose to listen to spoken texts when they are travelling or just relaxing at home with eyes closed.

I’m delighted that my own novels have been turned into talking books. The ‘VisAbility’ organisation, previously called the WA Association for the Blind, has recorded both The End of Longing and That Untravelled World for people unable to access the printed versions. They aren’t available in that form for general sale through bookshops, but can be purchased (exclusively) from my publisher: see the Audiobook section of the UWAP website.

There’s a special pleasure in the sound of one’s own text when someone else narrates it eloquently. I’ve yet to listen to That Untravelled World, but hearing The End of Longing read aloud by Elizabeth Oats on CDs has made me aware of the distinctive tonal quality that a female voice can bring to the experience of storytelling. Elizabeth speaks with beautiful clarity, and her limpid expression is particularly apt for the passages that convey the point of view of Frances, the main female character.

Perhaps when I’ve finished drafting my next novel or short story I’ll see whether I can arrange for someone suitably skilled to read it aloud to me. That could be a means of detecting phrases that aren’t quite right, rhythms that need adjusting. I wonder whether some other writers already do this?