Reading Aloud

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Reading Aloud

Patricia Howell Michaelson

The development of the novel is often linked to the practice of silent reading. Previously, readers typically read only a few texts, such as the Bible, “intensively” and often aloud (Engelsing). Silent reading gave access to a wider range of texts, which might be read only once and in private. Silent, solitary reading has been seen as essential to the novel's appeal to its early readers (Hunter). But reading aloud has never disappeared: novels have been read aloud since the genre developed, both in the family and, especially in the nineteenth century, in professional performances. The oral performance of literature was a part of the school curriculum in Britain and the U.S. well into the twentieth century. Professional recording of books began in the 1930s as an aid for the blind; today, a burgeoning market for audiobooks supplements that for printed novels.

Eighteenth-century critics of the novel often expressed anxiety about how easy it was for young, undereducated readers (women, in particular) to be corrupted by the novel's individualist values. Reading silently and alone, they claimed, not only kept young readers from more important duties, but made them more susceptible to the novel's negative effects (Pearson, Flint). Samuel Johnson's characterization of novel readers as “the young, the ignorant, and the idle” (Rambler, 1750) and Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, a century later, are iconic examples of this idea. In modern times, reading alone may still be viewed as a private indulgence, a break from the daily routine and a chance to experience idealized romance (Radway).

The practice of reading novels aloud, by contrast, makes reading a part of family or social life. Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740) was read aloud, famously, in villages where the literacy rates were low. In middle-class homes, family reading provided an experience that was shared, interrupted for discussion, and mediated by comments on the text. Reading became a performance, in which the reader could act out the parts of the narrator and the various characters. This entry will discuss, first, the eighteenth-century British “elocution movement,” which theorized reading aloud; second, the practice of reading novels aloud; and lastly, the changes brought by twentieth-century media.

The Elocution Movement

In Britain, beginning in the 1760s, elocutionists like Thomas Sheridan brought attention to the oral performance of texts. In keeping with classical rhetoricians, Sheridan argued that texts were “dead” until performed by the living voice; his focus was on persuasion in the public spheres of church and politics (see RHETORIC). In his Lectures on the Art of Reading (1775), Sheridan analyzed the church service almost line by line, criticizing the usual reading and marking emphases and pauses so the performer would properly convey the text's meaning. Another elocutionist, John Walker, taught that a grammatical analysis would lead to proper pronunciation. Still others, like John Burgh, championed the expression of emotion as part of the art of persuasion.

The elocutionists' ideas were popularized in anthologies used for teaching reading in schools, which were widely available through the nineteenth century in Britain and the U.S. (The American “McGuffey Readers” are perhaps the best known.) The anthologies often include prefatory instructions for reading aloud, generally borrowed from elocutionists like Sheridan or Walker. The section on “Pronunciation, or Delivery” from Hugh Blair's Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1783) was another favorite. This text frames its rules as part of two main goals of reading aloud. For the text to be understood, the reader must speak loudly, distinctly, slowly, and with correct pronunciation. To please and move the audience, the speaker uses proper emphasis, pauses, tones, and gestures. Proper emphasis was highlighted by the elocutionists, since emphasis could alter meaning, as in the example, “’Do you ride to town today?’ ’No, I walk.’ ’Do you ride to town today?’ ’No, I stay in the country.’” Pauses, too, were seen as a kind of emphasis, drawing attention to significant points. Elocutionists criticized the artificial tones that some readers used and recommended using the tones of everyday speech. The use of gestures in reading was more controversial, with some authors offering diagrams of gestures and formal rules for expressing various emotions, and others dismissing gestures as overly theatrical.

Later in the nineteenth century, elocution became associated with exaggerated and stilted performances, often taught as the “Delsarte system.” The close attention to the author's meaning, so important to the earlier elocutionists, was abandoned in favor of melodramatic gesture. However, the concern for authorial intention was revived in the twentieth century under the names of “oral interpretation” or simply “interpretation.” Teachers like S. S. Curry early in the century, W. M. Parrish in the 1930s, and Don Geiger in the 1960s all argued that preparing a literary text for a reading was the best way to develop a deep understanding of it. Elocution has been primarily an Anglophone phenomenon. In 1877, Ernest Legouvé lamented the French lack of interest in reading aloud and closed his treatise on reading with a call to imitate the Americans “by making the art of reading aloud the very corner-stone of public education” (1879, Art of Reading, trans. E. Roth, 145).

Reading Novels Aloud

While the elocutionists explicitly focused on reading in the church or in public speeches, and the school anthologies offered examples of famous speeches from history and from drama, as well as short pieces in prose and verse, the ideas of the elocutionists did influence the reading of novels. Jane Austen, for example, was well aware of the elocution movement; its influence on reading the church service is discussed in Mansfield Park (1814, vol. 3, chap. 3). Austen's letters and novels provide many examples of reading aloud in the family circle, with comments on the quality of the reading. In her novels, Austen sometimes marked her text for the oral reader, who, unlike a reader of the church service, would probably not have prepared the reading in advance: her use of italics and paragraph breaks suggest points where the reader might emphasize or pause (Michaelson).

As a mixed genre, novels demanded a range of reading styles. The elocutionists had urged readers to “personate” the author of a speech they were reading; this facilitated the reader's primary job, to convey the author's meaning to the audience. But readers of novels should personate the author only in narrative sections; in the dialogues, they should portray the various characters. Reading aloud becomes a kind of acting. Gilbert Austin wrote that readers of novels should hurry through “mere narrative.” “Interesting scenes” demand more careful, impressive reading, while dialogue should be read as if it were drama (1806, Chironomia, 206). John Wilson noted that even a given description must be read differently, depending on which character is speaking (1798, Principles of Elocution).

These elaborations reimagine the novel as theater. Authors planning for an oral performance, then, might minimize narrative in favor of dialogue, leading to livelier reading. In preparing his own texts for his popular public readings, Charles Dickens tended to abbreviate narrative while making characters' speech more inflected by dialect. Dickens noted emphases, as well as tones and gestures, in his prompt books. He maintained the line between reading and acting, remaining behind his reading desk, but reviewers called him “one of the best of living actors” (Collins, lvi; see also Andrews).

Reading novels aloud alters the audience's experience of the text. The reader is an intermediary between text and audience, not only interpreting the text through his or her voice, but also abridging the text in some places and stopping to comment in others. In her diary of 1798, Frances Burney says of her husband reading Gil Blas to their son, the “excellent Father judiciously omits or changes all such passages as might tarnish the lovely purity of his innocence” (1976, Journals and Letters, 6:801). The risk that the solitary reader might enter too deeply into the illusion is obviated. The text is shared, interpreted, and contextualized in the family. In addition, reading aloud within the family reinforces social bonds and hierarchies: the reader might be a father surrounded by his family, a husband reading to his wife in bed, reinforcing their intimacy, or a paid companion reading to amuse her patron (as Jo does in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, 1868).

New Media

The new media developed in the twentieth century (radio, TV, analog and digital recording) largely displaced reading aloud as an everyday family entertainment, with one notable exception: the ritual of parents reading bedtime stories to young children. As in earlier periods, reading to children performs multiple functions as a means of education and a way of strengthening relationships, and as before, the parent selects the text, interprets it, and interrupts it for discussion. In present-day adult settings, reading novels aloud is often in the context of a special event, like marathon readings of James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) or authors reading from their own work. The actor Patrick Stewart performed Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol (1843) on stage during the holiday seasons in the 1990s and into the new century, harkening back to Dickens's practice, to great acclaim.

New media may have aided the demise of family reading, but they enabled the development of audiobooks. Thomas Edison had predicted as early as 1878 that book recordings would be one future use for the phonograph. Beginning in 1930s, recordings of books were made for the benefit of the blind, both in Britain and in the U.S. The BBC also broadcast “story hours” on the radio for a more general audience. A mass market for recorded books developed in the 1970s, when cassette players became standard equipment in American cars, and their use was closely tied to long drives and/or daily commutes. The American audiobooks industry describes its typical consumer as someone who reads widely and who sees audiobooks as one way to fit more reading in. In the early twenty-first century, audio versions of novels are usually released at the same time as the print publication. The reader is either an actor or, less commonly, the author, and the text is usually abridged. Audiobooks are considerably more expensive than the printed book. Downloadable digital formats and rental programs may make the price more competitive and may help develop a younger and wider listening audience.

SEE ALSO: Adaptation/Appropriation, Dialogue.


1. Andrews, M. (2006), Charles Dickens and His Performing Selves.

2. Bartine, D. (1989), Early English Reading Theory.

3. Collins, P. (1975), Charles Dickens.

4. Engelsing, R. (1974), Bürger als Leser.

5. Flint, K. (1993), Woman Reader, 1837—1914.

6. Hunter, J.P. (1990), Before Reading.

7. Michaelson, P.H. (2002), Speaking Volumes.

8. Pearson, J. (1999), Women's Reading in Britain, 1750—1835.

9. Radway, J. (1984), Reading the Romance.