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A Meditation on Reading Aloud by Joan Schweighardt

One of my endorsers kindly referred to my recently published novel The Last Wife of Attila the Hun as “an epic delivered in lucid and lyric verse, a mesmerizing story deserving to be read aloud and celebrated like all the world’s best tales.” I can’t think of lovelier adjectives for a book than “lucid” and “mesmerizing,” but initially, I admit, I got stuck on “deserving to be read aloud.”

When I think of reading aloud, I think of children’s books, or religious tomes. I suppose we all do, because who reads aloud in these times other than parents with small kids or theological leaders? Okay, we can squeeze political figures in there, reading from their teleprompters, and teachers, and students in creative writing classes reading their short stories in front of their fellow classmates. And there are probably a few other groups that could be included too, but no matter how you play it, the percentage of people who read aloud is going to be very small.

Reading aloud connotes, for me, “days gone by.” I imagine a fire blazing in a fireplace, a couple of adults sitting in rockers or armchairs with embroidered coverlets thrown over them, younger people of various ages curled up with cushions on the rug… It is evening; the dinner meal has already been served. No one is going anywhere (outside the house that is). Maybe, if the story is good enough, the reader will pass the book on to a second reader when he or she tires; maybe the story will go on until the fire goes out and the room grows cold.

That toasty scenario is really not so different from all the centuries before there were printed books, when families and even whole communities gathered together to hear stories in the oral tradition. The stories they shared helped to preserve the myths that illuminated their religious and cultural beliefs as well as legends that probably had a foundation in their ancestral history. Stories told in the oral tradition defined the people who shared them; they described their world back to them, for as far back as the stories reached. In many cultures, these stories were sung, because that was the easiest way to make them memorable and ensure they would be passed down for generations to come. Or they were presented in verse, for the same reason. They were all encompassing, full of adventure, and often magical.

Relatively speaking, books are a recent invention. Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440 but his intention was to print only Bibles, and he tried very hard not to let his technical secrets get loose in the world. But of course they did, and in time, all sorts of printers were printing books offering all kinds of information. And the public was as eager to get their hands on these wonderful informative publications as people in our times have been eager to gain access to the Internet.

Most early books were non-fiction, providing details about religion, medicine, travel and other topics that enabled first the elite, and then, as books got cheaper, the masses, to learn more about the world they lived in. But soon enough, printers were printing other kinds of stories as well. Stories of myths and legends that had been parts of oral traditions for years were finally being recorded. We will never know many of these ancient myths and legends in their pure form, because over time they grew by accretion, with newer events adhering to storylines that already existed. If not for the printing press, the process would have continued. Some of those myths and legends might even have dissolved altogether, under the weight of newer developments. But by virtue of recording them, the storylines came to a halt, frozen, forever available to us in that moment, like the images on Keat’s  Grecian urn. Suddenly everyone could learn about The Iliad, about Beowulf. Everyone could know about Pegasus and Medusa, about Robin Hood and William Tell…

The world must have been a storm of inspiration back in the early days of books. And since so many of them were based on stories that had their inception in an oral tradition, it seems perfectly natural that the first novels should come to be read aloud. How sweet it must have been to hear one’s parent—or sibling or friend—reading Robinson Crusoe or Gulliver’s Travels, and later Frankenstein, The Last of the Mohicans, Ivanhoe, The Three Musketeers, Moby Dick, Treasure Island, Dracula, The Hobbit… all ageless, timeless stories that could be enjoyed by everyone, from the youngest family member to the oldest.

I don’t know if the tradition of reading aloud will ever come back again. It seems highly unlikely. In these times it is often difficult enough to get all the members of one household together in one room for meals, let alone to spend an evening listening to chapters read aloud. But if the pendulum were to make that implausible shift, I’d be more than pleased to know my book was somewhere in the lineup.

 

DSC_0962Joan Schweighardt is the author of six books, travel articles and more. In addition to her own projects, she writes, ghostwrites and edits for private and corporate clients.

 

 

 

TheLastWifeOfAttilaTheHunTwo threads are flawlessly woven together in The Last Wife of Attila the Hun. In one, Gudrun, a Burgundian noblewoman, dares to enter the City of Attila to give its ruler what she hopes is a cursed sword; the second reveals the unimaginable events that have driven her to this mission.

Based in part on the true history of the times and in part on the same Nordic legends that inspired Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Tolkien’s stories, and other great works of art, The Last Wife of Attila the Hun offers readers a thrilling story of love, betrayal, passion and revenge, all set against an ancient backdrop itself gushing with intrigue. Lovers of history and fantasy alike will find realism and legend at work here.

Buy a copy of ‘The Last Wife of Attila the Hun’ at Amazon

 

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