The Ancient Yet Modern Practice that Can Change Your Life

Today, I wake up early, put my earphones in and set to work. I am immediately bombarded with the urgency of news, the chatter of the pundits and the wash of ads carefully “curated” just for me (do I really need that new pair of shoes?!). Even when I set down my earphones and enter the busy morning in my home, I am noticing how preoccupied my mind and spirit are with the work meeting later on, the trip to the vet with our pup and what to make for dinner tonight. The world, in all its pleasures and complications, swirls constantly around us, causing distraction and sometimes even pain: an aching, gnawing worry we are not doing the right thing or keeping up in some fundamental way. Lately, I’ve been noticing this more and more and I decided to do something about it. All the helpful articles and blogs about simplifying life didn’t really work for me, because in truth I also love the hectic nature of my life: our adult children and all the cousins, the pup, and the work: it’s all part of what makes life joyous and meaningful. The act of doing these things and giving them thought is also my greatest joy. I love a packed email inbox for it means I am busy with my work and people are in touch. The messages piling up on social media or even the alerts from the ads sometimes delight and entrance me (yes, I do think those shoes are a great color!). Simply telling me to cut back or cut down, to learn ways to pare back the emails are not good counsel for me personally. I love the messiness of our lives and I also need a respite at times. Both these things are true.

Then, in the midst of this self-reflection, I have a revelation. There is an ancient practice, a practice I spend my life talking about to children and it is the practice that brings me to the greatest sense of peace and joy as an educator. This practice is called the read aloud. It is, simply described, the art of sharing a story with another, without any strings attached, not about instruction or testing or proving oneself in some way, but instead it is about marinating the child in the power of story and/or words. It is the moment when the human voice is carrying with it the power of the text. Two profoundly meaningful influences on the child’s life: the beloved voice and a treasured text. I decide to take this teaching more fully into my own life. I ask my husband to join me in this practice. Each morning now, I receive a poem to my inbox from the amazing Poem-a-Day poets.org site and we spend time reading it aloud. I also notice that when we read each other political blogs aloud to one another our conversation enlivens and we feel less alone in our preoccupation with the world. So we have added time for those read alouds too. We are not blocking the noise, but we are finding a community in it by placing a read aloud ritual into our lives.

The practice of sharing stories goes back to our ancestors, perched around a flame in the forest, sharing the day’s meal, and bonding together —sometimes mystical, sometimes realistic; stories that housed wisdom in words and deliveries; humor, drama, history and human imagination at its richest and most colorful. These exchanges and interactions laid the foundation for all of human culture. Our religions, musical and artistic styles, literature, political and philosophical ideologies and much, much more grew from within those circles of people and the ancient fires of story shared.

It’s why we love hearing our elders tell the same story again and again, even though we know it by heart. It’s why podcasts like Radiolab and The Moth are so popular. It’s why children will run towards me when they see me pulling a book out from my bag. Sharing stories stirs deep feelings of connection, belonging, and community within us. The oral tradition is enduring in our collective culture, no matter the next step in technology. It is an essential aspect of what it means to be human.

In 2010, LitWorld, the advocacy organization I founded in 2007, created World Read Aloud Day, to be celebrated this year on February 1st, giving all people a way to feel a sense of belonging to the world of stories, books and reading together, no matter where they live. Since that first celebration, “WRAD” has spread to include millions of people in more than one hundred countries across the world. The magnitude of support for WRAD demonstrates the universal power and joy of reading aloud, across culture, language, and geography.

Source: Naomi Leslie/LitWorld

One benefit of reading aloud is that it relieves stress. Bibliotherapy, an expressive therapy that involves storytelling or the reading of specific texts, is an form of healing that dates back to the ancient Greeks. The oldest library motto in the world, found on the royal chamber where books were stored by King Ramses II of Egypt translates to “a house of healing of the soul.” A recent piece in the New Yorker by Ceridwen Dovey, aggregates studies which show that “…reading has been shown to put our brains into a pleasurable trance-like state, similar to meditation, and it brings the same health benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm. Regular readers sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers.”

An article published by UC Berkeley points out that, “by knowing someone’s story—where they came from, what they do, and who you might know in common—relationships with strangers are formed.” In that same piece, and in many studies, researchers state that we produce the chemical oxytocin—the “moral molecule” or the “love hormone”— while telling, reading and listening to others’ stories. When this happens in our brains, we’re more motivated to relate to other people, whether we already have a close relationship with them or not. We become driven to understand, to help, to include, and to care. Telling stories, and reading them aloud, is an invitation to community, however permanent or temporary. During the moments in which a story is told, a palpable sense of belonging and empathy are cultivated between every individual within earshot. “The ability to quickly form relationships,” writes Paul Zak, Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, “allows humans to engage in the kinds of large-scale cooperation that builds massive bridges and sends humans into space.” The power of the shared story fuels our ability to connect with others, collaborate, and work together to improve our lives.

From a rural community in India to an urban corner of Kenya, from the busy streets of Harlem to the quiet roads in a small town in the Midwest, on February 1st, we will claim the power of shared story for all. We will raise our voices together in multiple languages and from myriad perspectives to reclaim the meditative and connective space that shared story creates.

I invite you to join me on February 1st to celebrate WRAD. By participating in this momentous day, you not only seize the opportunity to incorporate the powerful practice of reading aloud into your life, but you also stand in solidarity with the thousands of children and the adults who love and hunger for stories all throughout the world. Seize the power of World Read Aloud Day for yourself.

Make World Read Aloud Day the first day of the all the days to come when shared stories fill your mind and spirit with temporal and permanent joy.

Start the day by reading a poem or the sports pages to your beloved, get on a video call with your grandchild and read a favorite picture book together, and connect in a simple yet powerful moment of shared experience. Make the choice to temper the intensity of your busy and overloaded life, and tune in to the voices and stories you treasure most. You can have it all.

For more information on World Read Aloud Day, visit litworld.org/wrad and scholastic.com/worldreadaloudday.

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