My husband and I both come from homes where our mothers read to us, where we were shaped permanently by the power of good stories read aloud. Reading aloud means living through stories together. And, I think that knits a family together in shared experience beyond mundane life. This also plants the seeds for corporate make-believe that goes past the imagination of the individual child. And, it’s life-giving for more than just children.
I didn’t anticipate the joy of reading aloud to be so pivotal in our first year of marriage. We married a month after graduating college and moved to the Chicago area so that my husband could start seminary. Due to the random jobs I found as a seminary wife, I ended up having to wake up a majority of mornings around 3:30am. So, I would try to fall asleep around 8:30pm in order to get the sleep I needed, but I would find this difficult.
Gradually, my husband started reading me to sleep. In that first year of marriage, we reread books like The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, Narnia, To Kill a Mockingbird, among others. When I look back at that tough first year, I know that living together through these stories helped to unify our hearts and our mythic vision of the world.
Ernest Hemingway said, “All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.” As newlyweds with so very little to our name, these stories belonged to us together. We still talk about how we wept for 2 hours together during the climax of The Return of the King.
After I stopped having to wake up at 3:30am for work, we’ve been less consistent with reading out loud through the years, though we have kept it up overall. Nowadays, we find ourselves, of course, reading out loud to our toddler all the time. But after she goes to bed, we try to at least read out loud a chapter or two from Scripture. As our children grow older, I can’t wait to read aloud chapter books with them. I hope that by reading together with my husband, they see that reading aloud isn’t just for young children, for the time before you can read as an individual, but a joy for all of life.
As a young mother who can become very fearful about the difficulties of raising my children in this world, I persistently reminding myself that we can’t go wrong by giving our children as much as we possibly can of the true, the good, and the beautiful. This is what is truly real, truly substantial. And, one way to expose them to the truly real is through the power of good stories read aloud.
N.T. Wright says, “Within the Christian tradition there is special reason to pay attention to stories. . . Christians believe that all human life is itself a gift of God and, however much it may be distorted, a reflection of God. Thus even stories written by writers who are explicitly atheist—indeed, writers whose words were intended to mock or dismiss God—have a strange knack of making crucial points about what is means to be human, about the importance of love and justice and beauty. Living within the world of stories increases—if we let it—the capacity for discernment.”
In light of this, my hope is that the more my children experience good stories, the better they will be able to discern between the things that are real and the things that are ultimately weightless and futile. And, more so, I pray that these stories may strengthen their desire for the place where all our best stories root their reality and find their substance, a kingdom that cannot be shaken.