Read me a story: why reading out loud is a joy for adults as well as kids (2024)

Neither of us can remember exactly how it happened, but we both agree we were probably a little drunk. It was December 2016. We had been dating for eight months. Even with the booze we were, by many measures, still shy around each other, fearful of spoiling the magic. Which is why neither I nor my partner can fathom the conversation that landed us either in bed or on the sofa with him reading A Christmas Carol out loud to me for an hour. It wasn’t something either of us had ever done with another adult. It wasn’t something we’d heard of adults in the real world ever doing. But the book kept getting read – always by my boyfriend, out loud to me, who listened with total fixation. It was finished before we left to be with our respective families for the Christmas break. And when we returned to be together again in January, we decided we wanted to do it again.

Seven years later, reading together is something we do regularly throughout the year. Without meaning to, we have read mostly classics – The Picture of Dorian Gray, Alice in Wonderland, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – always, without fail, returning to A Christmas Carol in December, me blurting out the big lines I’ve memorised over time like an eager audience member at a kids’ sing-along.

We have never switched roles – he is always the reader. (People who know me, an impatient person, talkative, may be surprised that I elect to listen.) We laugh at strange wordings and at him stumbling over them, and occasionally we talk about the plot before a session starts. But, for the most part, I am silently attentive while he quietly speaks, until we reach a good stopping point or one of us becomes too tired to carry on.

You might have read the above and experienced a toe-curling response. That is understandable: it sounds sickly sweet, the kind of cloyingly romantic thing teenagers in a young adult novel might do. It’s something I’ve come to lovingly refer to as “our terrible secret”. Before revealing all here we had told almost no one and, whenever we did, we prefaced it with the trigger warning that what we were about to say sounded weird or awkward or mortifying.

Why we kept reading together was not a passion for Victorian literature or virtuosic performances from my partner. I’m not even sure it’s ever felt traditionally romantic. It’s because the effects have been transformative, both for us as individuals and as a couple. I couldn’t say whether it happened that first time, but I know how it’s made me feel since: it guarantees I’ll sleep through the night, that I’ll wake up without being tired and that I’ll get to sleep at all (my boyfriend jokes it has conditioned me to pass out to the sound of his voice). My anxiety, which becomes extra ghoulish at bedtime, retreats entirely – as effective for my mental health as a run or yoga, if not better. We have both noticed we are generally calmer people in the middle of a long reading stretch and especially notice the lack of serenity the days after we come out of one.

We are some of the only people we know, in real life, who read out loud together. But online, you can find dozens of posts from other couples who keep up this practice, usually punctuated by the same embarrassed precaution, most beginning to the affect of “This may sound odd” or “Hear me out” and almost always ending with a somewhat pleading: “Does anyone else do this too?” The circ*mstances are wide-ranging. While there are lots of other couples, there are also many non-romantic partners who read together: one person who now reads to one of their parents after they lost their eyesight, or two friends who began reading to each over Skype after one moved overseas. What people read varies from fantasy novels to commercial hits (a friend of mine has read her wife the entirety of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell Trilogy as well as It by Stephen King).

Whatever the configuration, whatever the text, the benefits appear near universal: almost everyone reports better sleep, improved mental health and a happy feeling about the other person. My friend noted, too, after her colleagues said they found it romantic that she took the time to read to her wife, that this hadn’t even occurred to her. Others say the same: that the intimacy is something which edges outside typical romance – for some, generating positive feelings that sit in their own distinct territory.

Most of the research around the science of reading aloud – if not all of it – has been conducted around children. This, of course, aligns with who in our culture is being read to most (and who can’t read for themselves). The total lack of science about the impact on adults reading to each another – the calmness, the closeness – also fits with it being a niche hobby. When it does focus on adults, what you get is the kind of studies you might find shared on LinkedIn, such as how reading out loud to yourself can improve memory retention. But there is some evidence in these studies that can be applied more universally to people at any age.

“Psychology has shown that synchronising our actions and emotions with others leads to greater feelings of intimacy,” Professor Usha Goswami, the founding director of the Centre for Neuroscience in Education at Cambridge University, tells me. “There is some recent neuroscience showing that if two people are engaged in a joint activity – for example juggling, playing a duet, having a conversation – their brain waves line up. This brain alignment may be why we feel a greater connection.”

Goswami’s work has focused on reading’s impact on the brain when it comes to childhood development, more specifically on the impact of rhythmic speaking. Her research has found that rhythm structures – often found in nursery rhymes and “poetry out loud” – are a crucial part of children’s language and literacy learning, creating patterns their brain waves can synchronise with. She explains that, at a neural level, brain waves appear to sync when this rhythmic language is both produced and perceived.

“When reading stories aloud, primary school teachers unconsciously produce similar acoustic statistics to those found in baby talk and nursery rhymes – the more accurately the brain aligns its rhythms to the rhythms in speech, the better the language comprehension of the receiver.”

These same rhythms, learned in childhood, are probably, subconsciously, adopted when adults read to one another. “When you read aloud, even to an adult, you unconsciously become quite rhythmic in your diction,” she says. “And any shared rhythms improve feelings of emotional wellbeing and feelings of group cohesion.” She gives the example of soldiers marching in time to band music. “The brain waves of everyone [both adults and children] seem to fall into time and, whenever this occurs, you feel better.”

Read me a story: why reading out loud is a joy for adults as well as kids (1)

Kate Nation, a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford university and the director of ReadOxford, a research group which studies how children learn to read, tells me that story itself also plays a role in why reading aloud makes people feel good themselves and closer to their partner.

“We know for children that reading is obviously important for education and learning and acquiring knowledge, but also for understanding themselves, their own personal narratives and empathy and emotion. All of those things, we do through story,” she says. “There’s the benefits that come from that – cognitively, linguistically, emotionally – but also the shared connection with that person: that they’re taking time, it’s sort of intimate, and there’s that sort of emotional connection with somebody else that loves you. That’s thought of as a two-way street between the parent and the child – one imagines it might extend to adult relationships as well.”

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That two-way street may be the most important element – this isn’t, for example, an article about audiobooks or open mic nights. “You’ve got somebody reading aloud to you, but here, of course, it’s a familiar person and it’s interactive in the moment. You might be stopping to ask questions or going off topic or talking about the text.” She considers that voice itself may play an active part.

“There is just something about hearing a voice and the comfort of hearing a voice,” she says. “Something about the soothingness and switching off from the world, that physical isolation, but not on your own sort of thing.” She is keen to stress, though, that – even within the research that now exists – conclusions are often about correlations rather than causal evidence.

“All sorts of things tend to cluster together that might promote health, wellbeing, cognitive development. It’s really difficult to know what the precise ingredient is.”

The limited science does explain some of why adult co-readers report a sense of ease, and even on some level why they might feel a stronger link to the person they read with. What we know about our brains and our bodies resonates with the physical benefits people seem to experience. These positive neural impacts can substantially improve your daily life. They are undoubtedly a large part of why this practice remains so appealing.

But I would be obscuring the truth to say this is the best part of reading out loud or that it’s why it has persisted in my relationship for close to a decade. The science doesn’t fully capture the emotional detail of this anomalous exchange or the quality of the “good” you feel – not just siloed in health benefits and improved wellbeing, but in the connection channelled between you and that other person. There is a tenderness in listening to someone you love and letting go of all thoughts and feelings beyond their voice; in reading to them and hearing their breath slow down and seeing their eyes get heavy, quietly noting at which point they drifted off before turning out the light. There is also, it feels important to say, a vulnerability in actually taking the leap to try this thing which is seldom done among adults. Letting go of that discomfort and being a little brave can bring concrete and ineffable returns which outweigh the initial perceived costs.

The oasis, the bubble – whatever you want to call it – that forms around you when you are focused on each other in this way, choosing to either listen deliberately or speak with care, is this hobby’s fundamental rarity. Everything else recedes and, while there is relief in the outside world falling away, the real draw is the vacuum of pure affection you are left with. This doesn’t feel dramatic or revelatory when it’s happening, but it is also what happens.

None of this has to be that deep, at least not all of the time. The normality of it over so many years means neither my boyfriend or I think about it all that intensely. My heart doesn’t break when we read on our own; I don’t feel wistful as we select a new book. I’m not profoundly moved each time he reads “Marley was dead, to begin with.”

But even if I’m not in the moment overwhelmed by some powerful emotion, this doesn’t mean those things aren’t still there – still working away, making me feel better than before and giving me all they ever have. Reading out loud may have become part of the furniture of our life together, something totally comfortable and ordinary, but I can honestly say each of the benefits is present in my mind every single time. The generosity of these acts – of giving, of listening – isn’t something, even seven years later, you have the choice to take for granted. The feeling doesn’t dull; you can’t remove the intrinsic care.

Read me a story: why reading out loud is a joy for adults as well as kids (2024)
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