Chickenfeed

Reading Flannery O’Connor aloud is wonderful because her stories almost read themselves—almost, but not quite, for the reader has his job of understanding to manage, and getting the timing and cadences right. It is sometimes easy to miss the point of her writing. She knew it and admitted it, sometimes sardonically and sometimes slyly, as when she said her story “Good Country People” is about a “lady Ph. D. who has her wooden leg stolen by a Bible salesman she is trying to seduce.” I created a stir at a reading group one time by reading aloud her story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” in which a family and their cat Pitti Sing take a drive trip in which they end up being methodically shot one by one by a killer called the Misfit. After I finished the room lit up with discussion.

That can happen with students, too. One time I was conducting a discussion of her story “Revelation” and asked whether it was right for the Ugly Girl to throw her book at Mrs. Turpin and try to strangle her in the doctor’s waiting room. I was surprised, though I shouldn’t have been, by how many of them said yes. An excellent discussion ensued. Another time I read aloud the ending of “The Enduring Chill” with its hero lying weakened to motionlessness by disease and terrified as he is pursued by his implacable adversary—the Holy Ghost. Reading the last paragraph aloud took some care, but the result was entirely satisfactory: I could hear breaths exhaled after I finished the last sentence.

Yeats is also good to read aloud. I have had excellent results with “Lapis Lazuli” and “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”—one of them upbeat, the other gloomy. His emblematic poem “The Second Coming” is a tougher go, but I was assisted by Mother Nature one time while reading it in South Africa. That part of the country has the most lightning strikes of anyplace in the world, or so I have been told. One afternoon the clouds were building as I started to read. I got to “Surely some revelation is at hand; / Surely the Second Coming is at hand.” As I finished that couplet a tremendous thunderclap broke over the school, and for the only time ever, the rough beast’s slouching towards Bethlehem was an anticlimax.

All this reading illustrates the truth that our live voices, which are our live presences in their communicatory aspect, bring something essential to the upbringing of children, including big ones. A recent study shows that reading aloud to young people even up to the age of eleven was associated with their decision to read more on their own. No benefit was shown for reading to teen-agers, but I guess that if they are more receptive to the printed word they will be more receptive to the spoken word too. And the receptivity of both ages is more strongly anchored in shared humanity, which children value; for the study shows that they regarded as “special” the time they shared with a grownup who read to them.  It doesn’t seem farfetched to suppose that the experience of such comforting time is cast forward at least to some extent into subsequent reading time.

It should then be obvious why the same results will not obtain when children are read to by screens and machines, whether set up by zealous mechanist parents or by profiteering “education” companies. Both are in the grip of the false doctrine that education is a process performed on children as feeding is performed on a henhouse of battery chickens.

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