Not long ago, a woman named Linda Khan sat by a hospital bed feeling ill at ease. Her elderly father lay beside her. His heart was faltering and he needed surgery. That wasn’t what was bothering Ms. Khan, though. What troubled her was that all day, the two of them had engaged in nothing but depressing small talk. They had always enjoyed good conversations, but now her father seemed sunk in querulous contemplation of his predicament. He talked about the hospital food, the tests, the doctors, the diagnosis. The scope of his once wide-ranging interests seemed to have shrunk to the size of the room. The world outside seemed remote, disconnected, irrelevant.
“It is really hard to sit with a person in a hospital,” Ms. Khan said later. “The patient is going through so much, and it feels like there’s nothing to talk about except the medical situation.”
Casting around for a way to divert her father’s thoughts, Ms. Khan noticed a stack of books that people had brought to the hospital for him. He’d always been a big reader, but of late didn’t have the energy or focus. Epiphany struck. She picked up a copy of Young Titan, Michael Sheldon’s biography of Winston Churchill, and started to read it out loud.
“Right away, it changed the mood and atmosphere,” she said. “It got him out of a rut of thinking about illness. It wasn’t mindless TV, and it wasn’t tiring for his brain or eyes because I was doing the reading.”
The two of them ended up reading for an hour that day. It was a relief and a pleasure for both of them. The book gave the daughter a way to connect with her father and to improve a situation that was otherwise out of her control. Listening allowed the father to travel on the sound of his daughter’s voice, up and out of the solipsism of illness and back into the realm of mature intellectual engagement, where he felt himself again.
“He’s in and out of the hospital a lot and now, I always read to him,” Ms. Khan told me, “It’s usually military history or biography, not my usual stuff, but he has good taste. I’m happy.”
Reading aloud is something most of us associate with young children. There’s no quicker way for a filmmaker to show that an adult and a child have a loving relationship than to depict the elder reading to the younger. It’s cinematic shorthand for good reason. Reading aloud with kids is a magical experience that brims with love and language and imaginative discovery. It’s excellent for children, too: We’re learning more all the time about the cognitive and social-emotional boost they get, especially in the early years when their brains are growing fast (in the first year, a baby’s brain doubles in size; by his or her third birthday, the brain has completed 85 per cent of all the growth it will have). So reading in the early years can have profound, life-shaping consequences.
What many people don’t realize is that the magic still operates when everyone involved has long since grown up. Linda Khan discovered it by accident. For Neil Bush, the late-life hospitalizations of his famous parents George H. W. and Barbara Bush were an opportunity to repay a debt of gratitude.
“When I was a kid, [my mother] would read to me and my siblings,” Mr. Bush told a reporter last year. With his parents in and out of care, he said, “we’ve been reading books about Dad’s foreign policy and more recently, Mom’s memoir. And to read the story of their amazing life together has been a remarkable blessing to me, personally, as their son.” His mother died the day after he gave the interview; his father died in November.
Before the ubiquity of screens, reading to the sick and convalescent was reasonably common. Albert Einstein, for instance, used to read the Greeks – Empedocles, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Thucydides – to his sister Maja in the evenings after she suffered a stroke and was bedridden.
Read the whole essay by Meghan Cox Gurdon, published at the Daily Mail.
- 10 Books to Read Out Loud with the Grown Ups in Your Life – Laura Sackton
- 114 Great Books To Read Aloud for Adults – Goodreads.com
- Some Thoughts on the Lost Art of Reading Out Loud – New York Times (2009)