CNF 2: Read To Me

When I was 14 years old, I mentioned to a classmate offhandedly that my dad was reading Harry Potter to me. 

“Your dad’s… reading to you? Aren’t you like, a little old for that? I read all those books by myself when I was 10.”

Embarrassed, I turned red and went quiet. So have I, I thought, though it was beyond the point. I never brought the subject up again. 

Here we are, a decade later. I visit my dad on my days off work. He makes me coffee and we sit on the couch in his living room with the dog and the cat. I pull out a book, or a magazine article, or a class reading assignment, and I clear my throat. 

My dad and I, we read to each other. It doesn’t so much matter that we are both fully capable of the feat ourselves. This thing we have? This quality time? It’s mega important. Always has been. 

I don’t think we are ever too old to be read to. It drives me crazy that we live in a culture where storytime is only routine when young children are involved. What the heck! Why don’t we prioritize this exercise in empathy and connection for ourselves, our relationships, and our collective developing and developed brains?

Back in the days of my dad reading Harry Potter to me, I was going through puberty and my parents were going through a divorce. It was a painful, sweaty, awkward time. Did my dad reading to me soothe my tween angst and anxiety? Well, not precisely. But it did build up a magical world around us, and in these transient moments, the real world and all its troubles evaporated. We had never spent all that much time together heretofore, and so my dad reading to me became the foundation of the relationship we went on to build. It put us, quite literally, on the same page. 

As it turns out, it also puts us on the same wavelength, quite literally. Geek out with me for a moment. 

Through a phenomena called speaker-listener neural coupling (Links to an external site.), the brain response patterns of a person listening to a story can mirror, and sometimes even anticipate, the brain response patterns of a person telling a story. Ostensibly, this would mean that as my dad read to me, our brain patterns aligned. Strictly speaking, this phenomena is true for anyone speaking and anyone listening, but the key element here is that the listener must be engaged. And what is more engaging than a compelling story?

For people *cough* me and my dad *cough*, who have a propensity to fall short of being stellar conversationalists at times, this mode of connection and communication is invaluable to our relationship. It gives us new material to discuss, it gives us new common ground to walk on, it keeps us engaged. 

When I first learned about speaker-listener coupling, I was listening to an audiobook version of How To Tell A Story from The Moth. The timing could not have been more perfect in aiding my internal WHY DON’T MORE PEOPLE READ TO EACH OTHER OUT LOUD AS ADULTS?! rant. It clarified a roadblock that had been forming in my brain: adults love listening to audiobooks and podcast storytelling. What then is the argument for why in-person storytelling is intrinsically different and necessary? Hasson et al (Links to an external site.) once again brought up points of interest: nonverbal cues like hand gestures and facial expression also create neural coupling. Of course we are more connected the more sensory the experience. 

I love audiobooks and reading alone as much as the next person, but I also wish we created more space and appreciation for shared auditory reading experiences in modern friendships and relationships of all kinds. I’m definitely not advocating for time travel to any point backwards in history, but I do find it endlessly fascinating to envision a world where adults reading aloud to adults was a fixture in everyday life the way adults reading to children is today. I suppose in some ways it is– we read instructions and headlines and yes, sometimes full length books. In fact, one research finding (Links to an external site.) showed that, while literature suggests a historic shift from reading as oral and communal to silent and individual, a sample of adults showed that adult read-aloud practices are substantial and varied. 

Yet I want more. I want “let’s read to each other” to be just as ordinary as “lets go to the movies” or “let’s grab some coffee.” I want my dad reading Harry Potter to me at age 14 to not be cause for embarrassment. And for the record, his impression of Professor Umbridge was hilarious. It’s not every day you see your old man transform into a ghastly pink toad of a witch. From the reader’s end, I think he really benefited from putting his voice into someone else’s narrative. Trying on different hats and walking in different shoes built empathy for both of us.

Storytime also forced us both to slow down. That’s something I think about a lot. These days, I feel like I move a million miles a minute. I want to slow down. I want to make more time for this. It has been suggested that silent reading dominates reading out loud in adult life because it is faster (Links to an external site.). My phone likes to tell me on a weekly basis how many hours I spend staring at it though, so if I’m hard pressed for time to read to or be read to, I probably needn’t be. 

Recently, I have been extra frustrated because I’ve read a bajillion books alone and am finding it hard to talk to anyone about what they meant to me. 

Even when I read the same books as friends, and we are moved by the same material, I end up finding myself at such a loss for words when it comes to articulating why. I am left wondering what moments like this would look like had we simply shared our journey through a book’s pages with one another. Maybe then we wouldn’t have to try so hard to conjure up an expression of our emotions. 

Existing on the same wavelength might just be communication enough.

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