Some (Unspoken) Thoughts About Old Folks and Reading Aloud

I recently read an article about the value of reading aloud for memory.  For both children and old folks, material listened to was retained better than text read silently; words we read aloud to ourselves were even more likely to be retained then words read to us.  Old people in particular benefit from this differential, retaining about 20% more when reading aloud.

In the beginning, almost everyone read out loud. (By the way, aloud is the formal and proper term; out loud, however, has come into common use and is apparently here to stay.)  “Listen to this tablet” said the writer of a message inscribed in clay.  The first real record we have about reading silently comes from Augustine, who described how singular it was that Saint Ambrose read without moving his lips.

When written literature was in short supply or only a minority of people were literate, much reading aloud imparted the content of books, newspapers, and pamphlets.  Many 18th century books were largely read aloud by family groups around the fire in the evening.  Now, of course, almost all adult reading is done silently.   We lost something.

Human culture started with an oral tradition, and old folks have been particularly affected over the ages by the shift from an oral tradition to widespread literacy. Before general literacy and availability of books, older people were more valued for their experience and history.  How to plant the crops or tend a baby was information that we got orally (and sometimes loudly) from people who had done it before.  I remember my own grandmother taking umbrage at my mother’s attachment to Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care – which contained advice that did not always jive with earlier custom.  My mother stuck to Dr. Spock; I wonder if my grandmother felt less valued. 

Also, when literacy did start to take off in the eighteenth century, it was usually the young who learned their letters first.  This often meant that offspring of the household – the children and grandchildren – could read the new broadsides and chapbooks that their elders could not decipher.  We could imagine that, instead of tales told around the hearth by the oldest member of the group (the member with the longest memory and the most to “tell”), the literate were now reading to the illiterate.   Imagine a grandmother having to rely on a grandchild to write her will or to read to her the latest popular broadsheet.  We might think of the relation between young and old these days in relation to technology.  Who hasn’t relied on a younger member of the family to set up their computer or teach them how to stream a movie?  But also, who of my generation does not remember the joys of being read to by Nana or Grandpa, in those days before competition from TV’s and iPads?

Reading aloud is akin to thinking aloud, and we all know the value of spoken thought in clarifying our minds.  Often, I can ponder a problem or decision mentally for weeks without coming to any conclusion.  What helps most at that point is a long talk with a trusted listener.  There is something about having to frame the issue in communicable terms and tones that illuminates the question in ways that unexpressed thought cannot.  Of course, writing about such things help too, but you lose the ability to use vocal inflections and to monitor the facial responses of the person listening.  You need a really good listener to do this well, and when that is not readily available, writing and then reading one’s words aloud to yourself (or your cat) is the next best thing.

 Confession, too, seems to work better when it is spoken.  There is something about putting the words out in the world that helps to dissipate them.  Churches now often have a scripted group confession prayer that is intoned in unison by the congregation.  While this is somewhat purgative, it does not force us to enumerate and enunciate our specific failings.  Perhaps they shouldn’t have gotten rid of those confessional stalls.

There are other benefits of reading aloud.  For one thing, it precludes skimming (my great vice).  And for a writer, the process of reading one’s own work out loud is invaluable – both to catch simple errors and to feel the tone of a piece.  I have been in writing groups that circulated pieces ahead of time and then had meetings where we only critiqued the writing; my current group reads the pieces out loud at the meeting and sends along the critiques later.  The reading aloud makes a tremendous difference.

Reading aloud is also a bonding activity.  As we peruse the Sunday NY Times at the breakfast table, my husband and I take turns reading interesting tidbits to each other.  He tires of this before I do, but newsprint is dull and rarely elicits the laughs, groans, or shrieks that oral delivery of the news can bring.  It allows us to express the emotions elicited but usually unexpressed as we ponder the events of the world, and to do it communally.

You might want to revisit my story “Playing by Ear,” and try reading it aloud.  Or read anything aloud today – to yourself, to the canary, to someone over the phone.  You will remember it better and appreciate it more.  You will exercise the speaking apparatus that is probably atrophying a little in these times of little social interaction. 

My Grandfather’s Clock

I had the song, “My Grandfather’s Clock,” tick-tocking in my head this morning. A metrical earworm. The ditty tells the remarkable tale of a mechanical device (which actually needs regular winding!) that lasts ninety years – it was “bought on the day” the man was born and only stopped when he died. Do you know it? It was a favorite in New England first grades and with barbershop quartets. (Johnny Cash even recorded it.) Apparently there are many verses, but here is the verse and chorus that I remember:

My grandfather’s clock was too tall for the shelf
So it stood ninety years on the floor
It was taller by half than the old man himself
But it weighed not a pennyweight more

It was bought on the morn on the day that he was born
It was always his treasure and pride
But it stopped, short, never to go again
When the old man died

This song is said to have given the name of “grandfather” to such clocks. Not sure that is true – I’m beginning to think you can find any fact you want on the internet (as well as its contradiction). But it seems to have been written by Henry Clay Work – an American who heard a similar story when he visited an English pub in North Yorkshire.

Anyway, the timepiece went on “like clockwork,” only being asked to be wound every night (the old version of recharging), and kept perfect time for the duration of the old man’s life. What do we oldsters possess which has served us all or most of our whole lives? Surely nothing mechanical, I would guess. How many radios, cars, televisions, alarm clocks, have we gone through? Technology may be laboring to extend the life of humans, but machinery/equipment is expendable. And more and more so. If its obsolescence isn’t built into its very design, it is soon deemed outmoded by “better” technology that we surely much have to keep up with. And don’t try to get parts for a thirty-year old oven. (The EU, as well as some states, is actually considering legislation to make appliances last longer and be easier to repair.)

And then there is the Marie Kondo craze, spreading the credo to ditch most of our “stuff” and keep only those things we love, the things that spark joy. The result has been a bonanza for thrift shops and Salvation Army stores as people unload their accumulations – and how long before it is replaced? Do we also take the advice to love and take better care of what we have already? And not to abandon it for the newest version or fad?

People my age who are beginning to think about down-sizing or moving to an old age holding station (let’s call it what it is) all have one complaint – they have too much stuff. And, often, the stuff they prize – grandma’s china, Aunt Ruth’s silver, the gigantic wardrobe that’s been in the family for years – no one in the family wants. Who would polish silver these days when it could be melted down to buy a new iPhone?

What does this mean about how we view our environments? Does cultural disposability as it relates to our objects somehow also seep into the way we treat the world around us – our environment, other people? Just a question to ponder. The grandfather clock was dependable and long-lived because it was well and durably made, but it was also reliable because its owner remembered to wind it every night. And to oil and polish it occasionally. To pay attention to it. And deeply appreciate it.

Anyway, writing this post has finally gotten the song out of my head. If you want to read a piece of my fiction about one woman’s attachment to her chiming clock (and other things), try “Playing by Ear.”

Parabola and Long Tails

I wrote earlier in this blog about Dante’s vision of life as a parabola, which goes up to the “perfect age” (thirty-four according to Dante) and then starts down again. Life rises on one side and falls on the other, ending on the same level where it began. And so, as it falls, it passes through some of the same horizontal levels passed through on the way up – something that intrigues me, but which I will come back to.

If life for Dante was a parabola, I have wondered whether – seven centuries later – the shape of life has changed. Children (and mostly I mean well-off children) now seem to have a longer childhood. They stay at home longer, marry later, have children later. On the other side, old age is often very long indeed in the modern era. Medicine and technology have allowed life to be extended again and again, until the tail just lengthens and lengthens. Without judging whether this is a good thing or not, it surely changes the shape of a life. My mother, for example, has been old for a very long time. She has had multiple joint replacements and cancer surgeries, but is remarkably healthy as she approaches ninety – except that she has severe dementia. Scary dementia where she is sure that people are watching her, harming her, planning all manner of evil. And this could go on for a very long time. For better or for worse, old age seems to have developed what statisticians call a “long tail” – rather than dipping down precipitously at the end (think parabola), it tapers off as more and more is lost, and yet the heart goes on and so does some form of life. Where Dante saw the symmetry of a parabola, are we now seeing something else?

I like playing with the symmetry of Dante’s parabola. Over my desk hangs a nineteenth century depiction of the stages of a woman’s life – more an arc than a parabola but the idea is the same.

As I noted in my earlier post, the parabola gave me an idea for the structure of a novel which would pair points on the upward movement with corresponding points on the downward slope after the “perfect age” is reached. (Here is an interesting exercise – when did you reach your “perfect age”? Or aren’t you there yet? What is the difference between Dante’s perfect physical age and the perfect spiritual/mental age?) My novel is about two-thirds complete and will soon join its companions in my bottom drawer, but I thought I would post an excerpt. In order to illustrate and test my thesis that there are correspondences between the same point going up and coming down the life cycle, the novels pairs (fictional) diary/journal entries from the same woman, often on a common topic or theme.

The title of the novel is Hummingbird Wars and the excerpt includes two chapters/paired journal entries. In the this selection, we have a young mother being introduced to exciting new technology as the world opens up to VCR’s and personal computers in 1985. At the descending point on the parabola, the same woman in 2005 is nearing retirement, learning yet another version of the operating system at the office, and wondering about the true value of the internet, cell phones, and social media. If you are my age, you will recognize this woman (both the older and younger version) and her thoughts and concerns. If you are younger, you might wonder how your views of technology will change as you enter the long tail of old age.

Answers?

My generation spent our young adult years being fascinated by all the new technology cascading to the market. We knew television from our youth, but soon it was color television, then there were VCR’s and cable TV, video games, there were computers in the office and then computers at home – and then the internet and cell phones arrived! Scanners, digital pix, e-mail, social media, texting, news on demand, ipads, smart phones, search engines – all of this was a long way from the US Postal Service and the Encyclopedia Britannica. We were fascinated, seduced, enamored, and then we were… suspicious, and sometimes overwhelmed.

I remember the first time I was exposed to a spread sheet program (Lotus 123) and realized those ledgers and blue and red pencils could go out the window. But the initial joy was followed by the realization that the answers we got from the spread sheets were only as good as the data and formulas that we put into them. The word processors produced gorgeous copy – error-free with justified margins, but the content was if anything diminished by the speed with which it could be produced. We learned the acronym GIGO – Garbage In, Garbage Out. We found that we could reach anyone in the world from our cell phone or computer, but that there weren’t that many people we wanted to talk to. (Remember Thoreau? “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate!”) Google answered our questions, but we weren’t at all sure what questions to ask. Maybe Picasso spoke for all of us when he stated that “Computers are useless. They only give you the answers.”

Of course, computers and rational people can answer what are called convergent problems – ones with definitive answers that are the same across time and individuals. How do you build a bicycle? How far is it to the sun? But what are the important questions? For you? For me: “What should I do? How should I live? And (as I got older): Why haven’t I figured this out before now?” Ah, but maybe the problem is a blind belief in rationality itself and that we (or our computers) can “figure it out.” The best literature is written about the big questions of life. I just finished Richard Powers wonderful Prisoner’s Dilemma (and see here for a description of the philosophical problem for which the novel is titled) and the question that Powers asks is “what, if anything, can one private citizen do to make the shared scenario less horrible?” This is a great question for our time. A good exercise in reading is to attempt to ascertain what questions the author is asking and what – if any – alternative answers are presented to these interrogations.

Questions and answers. For all the rationality of Socrates, he is surely better at questions than answers. And wisdom literature of the religious variety is not much for definitive answers. In the Bhagavad Gita, we open with Arjuna asking Krishna why he must engage in battle. Krishna tells Arjuna that it makes no difference, in the end friend and foe are the same, and that Krishna himself is both the sacrifice and the sacrificer. Try to figure that out rationally. Arjuna learns a level of acceptance – “You have dispelled my doubts and delusions and I understand through your grace,” says Arjuna finally. “My faith is firm now, and I will do your will.”

Job asks God three questions: “Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?” “How can a man be just before God?” and “If a man die, shall he live again?” As far as I can see, God never answers any of these questions. After trying to argue rationally with his friends and with God, poor Job comes to the same conclusion: “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” God also takes Job’s “friends” to task for thinking they had “figured things out” and for giving Job false information. These friends end up needing to make big sacrifices and have Job intercede for them to stay on the right side of the Big Guy. The Book of Job and the Bhagavad-Gita are stories of acceptance, not stories of answers.

Computers have both absolute rationality and answers; it might appear that both are, in many ways, useless. Like Job’s friends. Computers give us answers, but answers – especially easy answers – are something of which we should be very suspicious.

But the questions, the questions are important. How do we interrogate our own lives to avoid GIGO? What are your questions? Think about it. And when you decide on your questions, run them through Google for a laugh.

This week’s story, “Don’t Eat the Pink Ones,” has more mysteries than answers, but it is appropriate for the end of the blueberry season.