Giving voice to print



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.’


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?



6 thoughts on “Giving voice to print

  1. Yes, I read aloud. Too much, probably. I share walls with my neighbours and they must surely think I’m ‘not right in the head.’
    I think I was very fortunate to have a lot of literature and stories on cassette tape when I was young. A lot of them were narrated by professional actors. I can hear tracts of them in my memory even now.

  2. It’s not a surprise, Glen, to learn about your early exposure to voiced texts. That background may partly explain why you seem to be able to write ‘by ear’ – I’m thinking of the rhythms in some of your short fiction but also of your involvement in creative performance work.

  3. Ian,

    Another thought provoking post, which leads to me recalling a ritual of my own childhood-in this instance listening to the ‘Morning Book’ read on the radio. The particular thought which you have provoked is the realisation that memories of those particular books, read in weekday instalments which were listened to in our household over the breakfast table, have stayed with me rather better than many others I have read.

    The radio station’s selection was a mixed bag. ‘King Solomon’s Mines’ comes readily to mind, as does ‘Three Men in a Boat’ and an Australian Crime thriller ‘The Money Movers’ by Devon Minchin to name but three from which I have clear recollections of scenes within each novel. All three were much enjoyed at the time, and while I remember certain scenes in the latter which I doubt would now be thought entirely suitable for breakfast family listening, I have no doubt that listening to these, and others, before reading them gave me a different appreciation of the works in question.

  4. Hi Ian
    I find that reading aloud forces me to slow down, which is a good discipline. There’s so much written information around these days, or required reading for work, that it creates a habit of skimming rather than savouring the text. Careful listening is a skill in itself.

  5. Thanks, Paul and Iris, for your comments.
    Ah yes – that world of radio storytelling! Those breakfast instalments of the serial-over-one’s-cereal, affectionately remembered…
    And yes again, there’s great value in the fact that reading aloud means reading slowly and resisting the habits of skimming, skipping and scanning.

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