Author David Hill on the power of reading to a live audience
So you read to/with your kids during lockdown. Did it do them any good?
Silliest question of the millennium. Being read to (and reading itself) develops neural synapses in a way no other activity seems to. It grows vocabulary, comprehension, self-expression, imagination.
In an increasingly noisy, distracted world, reading takes participants deep into a quietness from which they emerge calmer, more at peace. It's a creative act, too: read, or listen to someone reading, and you're making a shape in your mind, a shape that's unique, belongs to you only.
Plus it provides me with material.
Every so often, I get invited to schools where classes have "done" – great verb – some of my books.
I talk and read to them, while they squat on the mat as close as they can get (if they're 6 years old), or sprawl in their desks as far away as they can get (if they're 16).
Then I ask for questions. With 6-year-olds, the problem is choosing from the palisade of waving hands. With 16-year-olds, it's the problem of getting anyone to raise their hand, in case they look uncool in front of their peers.
The younger the audience, the more unreserved and potentially unsettling those questions are. A lot are the Why/What/How variety: "Why did you write that? What's your favourite story? How much do you get paid?"
There's also (see "unsettling", above) "How old are you?" For a long time, I dodged this by answering, "Old enough to have two grandsons," which puzzled them enough for me to slither on to the next question.
As time passed, my answer morphed into "Old enough to have two teenage grandsons ... two grown-up grandsons."
Social media has sabotaged that. I got the "How old?" question in a school a few months back, and began sliding into my "Old enough to ..."
Small hands flew up from one corner of the group. Small voices chorused "We looked you up! You're 79!"
The statistic was humilating enough. The "whoooah!" that rang through the entire class was even worse.
Some questions from very young audiences redefine the Q word. I wrote a small story for matching listeners about a boy handling his fear of dogs. When I read it and invite questions, the queries follow a predictable pattern.
Q1: "I've got a dog!"
Q2: "I've got a dog and a kitten!"
Q3: "I've got a dog and a kitten and a bunny rab..."
At which point their teacher usually steps in, and explains the concept of a question all over again.
You see what I mean about reading aloud providing me with material.
Sometimes that material is unexpected. The two high school kids surreptitiously holding hands while I read to them. The year 13 girl who began weeping as I worked through an episode on the death of a parent. (I always check with teachers before I read certain passages, but s/he hadn't known about this case.)
Even then, I hope there was a reward. Never believe that reading is a solitary or a passive act. Even when it's just you, there's an internal dialogue going on and, when it's to a group, a community of understanding and emotion can form.
The looks of sympathy directed at this girl (or at their feet by the boys in the class), the way friends nearby put their arms around her, certainly suggested such a community.
Reading to a group is professionally useful to me in other ways.
Zadie Smith says the best time to edit your work is 10 minutes before you deliver it to an audience for the first time. Certainly, I find that reading aloud to anyone brings instant self-editing.
You're suddenly aware of the awkward syntax and clumsy cadences you missed on your previous, silent edits. Nearly always, as my eyes flit three words ahead of my mouth, I find myself changing words and phrases.
Young listeners have the built-in bulls*** detector that Ernest Hemingway said every author needs. Getting two paragraphs into the most exquisite prose you've written this year, and realising that your audience are already staring out the window or kicking one another under the desk, is great feedback for your writing, if not your ego.
For an encapsulation of how professionally valuable reading aloud has been for me, let me tell you about Chloe.
Chloe sat on the mat among a froth of other 7-year-olds, while I read them what I like to think is one of my more sensitive, delicately nuanced stories.
She was right in front of me, eyes huge as she listened. She swallowed at the most affecting bits. Clearly a kid with exquisite tastes. I decided that when hands went up for questions, I'd let her go first.
I drew near the story's impeccably structured end. Chloe shifted a little, swallowed again, shot a look at her teacher, as if to say, "Me first? Please!"
I finished. I began to say, "Any quest..."
Hands were already flailing. But not Chloe's. Instead, she leaned forward, and was noisily, voluminously sick, all over my shoes.
What a critic.