A Brief History of Communication:  Chat, Reading Aloud & Reading Silently

At the classical library.

Women have always known the value of chat. They know the value of chat as a primary means of communication. Their husbands may grunt over football and yell at the TV,  but women prefer to talk and exchange information.  Think of Martha Mitchell and the problems she unleashed when she ratted out her dishonest husband during Watergate.. She was a bit of a chatty heroine,  but I view her with affection.

My mother was chatty and prodigiously well-informed.   She  chatted for hours on the phone and then made a point of going to stores so so she could chat with sales clerks or cashiers.   And reading aloud to her children was a form of chat: we may not have been good conversationalists, but we loved our little Golden Books, fairy tales, and Dr. Seuss books.

Even a trip to Walgreen’s with my mother took an hour while we considered buying identical university t-shirts (“Go, team!”) and searched for a special brand of support hose she liked.  And then we chatted to the pharmacist about her medication, until we could rattle off all the side effects, by which time no sane person would dream of taking those pills, though my mother took her chances and lived to be very old.

In the ancient world, my mother would have had plenty of opportunities to chat: she might have haggled over greens at the market, dithered over the Saturnalia gifts,. or complained about potions she bought from quack herbalists.

There were certainly diversions in the ancient world:  holidays, festivals, shops, the games, feasts, and fine wine. Sadly, there was little reading except among the upper classes, and a few of us women might have started a feminist movement in order to read the books.  In W. V. Harris’s book, Ancient Literacy, he calculated that the maximum literacy rate was 20-30% – and that was in Hellenistic cities.

The actual method of reading in ancient Greek and Rome might strike one as anomalous.There was no silent reading till the Middle Ages, writes  Irene Vallejo in her superb book, Papyrus:  The Invention of Books in the Ancient World.  In ancient Greece and Rome, readers spoke the words out loud as they read them, whether they were reading to themselves or others.  And writers spoke the words aloud as they wrote.

How did ancient writers manage?  Cicero dictated to  his secretary, Tiro. And he had a chance to practice his oration as it was transcribed.

 I cannot imagine the impulsive Catullus reading aloud as he scribbled his charming poems to Lesbia, even though he based some of them on Sappho’s (in one case, almost word for word.) More likely he’d be mussing his hair up, making faces in the mirror, crossing out lines with a stylus, calling for pocula of wine, and damning Lesbia’s infidelity.  I do love Catullus.

The intellectual Virgil would have weighed his words with pietas (honoring his duties to the gods, his country, and his family) and with allusions to Homer’s epics .  Intellectual Virgil blended history, myth, nationalism, and religion into his Roman epic, the Aeneid, based on Homer’s  Iliad and Odyssey. (T. S. Eliot wrote an essay, “What Is a Classic?”, claiming that the Aeneid is the best poem in not only Latin but in any language.) As for wild Ovid, author of Metamorphoses and Amores, he broke so many rules that I can only imagine he was the first rebellious silent reader.

I am generally a silent reader, but my husband and I have rediscovered the joys of reading aloud. We are currently reading Conrad’s Victory. If you’re interested, you can start your own group or check out Sharing Reading groups online and Reading Aloud groups at public libraries. Or simply pair up with a friend: you can read a play and change the voices to amuse yourselves.

Reading Aloud Outdoors

Captain Omen and I reading outdoors, November 10

Captain Omen and I love to read aloud.  We used to read aloud the summer we got married.  We read in our yard, or at a table in an urban park. And then life got busier, or we forgot the pleasure of reading to each other.

This year we have resumed this charming habit.  In September and October we read Alice Thomas Ellis’s Pillars of Gold, written mostly in dialogue, so it is perfect for reading aloud.  (Here is my review.) And last week we began Joseph Conrad’s Victory, a tense novel set in the tropics. The hero, Heyst, a charming, courteous Swede, establishes and manages a coal company that goes broke.  No one understands why Heyst stays behind. And Schomberg, a gossipy, vicious German hotel owner, is intent on ruining Heyst’s reputation. Later, they struggle over a girl, Lena.

Conrad is a thrilling storyteller and a pitch-perfect stylist.  

I asked Captain Omen why he likes reading aloud. “I enjoy hearing the words spoken.  It somehow makes the descriptions more vivid.  I like sitting outside while we read.  I like being with my wife.”

Reading aloud is an intimate act.  It is a change from the world of electronics and audiobooks, which are entertaining, but not entirely necessary. And to echo Captain Omen, “I like sitting outside. I like being with my husband.”

Audiobooks vs. Humans:  Do You Read Aloud?

I must confess, I do not listen to audiobooks.  Years ago, I rented an audiobook of Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar, and thought I would listen to it while I washed the dishes.  I opened the box and was astonished to find 25-30 cassette tapes.  I spent only 10 minutes each night on the dishes,  so I made little progress with the tapes.  Eventually, I read the book myself.  It was faster and more enjoyable that way.

Although I am not a fan of audiobooks,  I do remember fondly the days when my husband and I read books aloud to each other.  We would walk to a scruffy urban park and sit beside a dead lake.  Neither of us ventured into the lake.  We were not suicidal.  Instead, we amused ourselves by reading to each other.  We enjoyed the humor books of Betty MacDonald, who is best known for The Egg and I, a comic memoir about life on a chicken farm. 

Of course our fondness for Betty MacDonald got us into trouble at the library.  One day we received an overdue notice for Anybody Can Do Anything.  “We took this back ages ago,” we insisted.  The cross librarian (yes, they used to be cross) had records, but we had our memory. The system had made a mistake, we said. We were a sweet young couple, so she couldn’t really find fault, though she looked as though she wished to banish us.

Months later we found Anybody Can Do Anything under the couch.  “How did this happen?”   The cats couldn’t have done it.  They sit on books, but they don’t move them around. We didn’t do it.  We don’t kick our books, so knew we were innocent.   The whole thing was a mystery.  Every old house has a ghost, yes?  It must have been the ghost. Laughing, we returned the book to the library.

We have known people who make their way though Trollope or George Eliot by reading aloud.  We tended to read aloud lighter books.  When you’re sitting by the lake under a scruffy tree, I Capture the Castle makes a charming read.  “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink,” Cassandra Mortmain, the narrator, writes in her vivid diary. She describes her family life as practice for the days when she will write novels. The fascinating Mortmains live in a chilly, dilapidated castle: there is even a moat. Her father is a blocked writer; her stepmother, a former artist’s model; her older sister Rose has practically never seen a man so she flirts a inappropriately, batting her eyelashes like a character in a romance, and alienates her prospects; and only the younger brother, who is still in school, seems normal.  But life becomes more interesting at the castle after an American woman and her two eligible adult sons befriend them. It helps that they love Mr. Mortmain’s book (which is compared to Ulysses).

Kurt Vonnegut is good to read aloud.  For one thing, his books are blessedly short, and are also very funny.  John Dos Passos’s U.S.A is a great book, but perhaps better read to oneself.   My husband read half of it aloud to me when I was hooked up to IVs in an infectious disease ward. I was comforted by his voice but so groggy I didn’t take much in.  Still, we kept up the custom even at the hospital.

Some years ago, Edward Gorey in a Christmas interview at Amazon recommended Sylvia Waugh’s morbidly comic novels, The Mennyms series.  To quote Goodreads: ” A family of life-sized rag dolls live quietly and happily in a British village, secure that everyone takes them as human, until a letter from their landlord’s relative in Australia threatens their existence.” We read all five of them aloud. They were published as children’s books, but they are definitely for adults – we think so! Edward Gorey had excellent taste.

When did we stop reading to each other?  We truly enjoyed it, but it became difficult to fit in everything once we got “real jobs.” And yet what a good habit it was, and it brought us so much joy. 

Audiobooks are wonderful in their way, but it is not quite the same.

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