Wandering Bards

Okay. Before you read any further, stop! And click on this link
That’s a recording of my most influential college professor, Dr. Luke Reinsma, reading the Prologue of The Canterbury Tales–in Middle English. 
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote…
That cadence takes me back to cozy firesides in the British Isles, where I was studying abroad three years ago. (Three years! How is that possible?) 
Assigned to read The Canterbury Tales in Middle English for our Medieval Literature class, most of my classmates and I felt overwhelmed. Middle English is similar enough to modern English that it can mostly be understood–but it takes a lot of effort. Medieval non-comprehension set in. Frustration set in. 
And so Dr. Reinsma began hosting semi-weekly reading sessions. His background is in medieval literature, and he reads fluently in Middle English. And so we students would sprawl all over hostel couches, chairs, benches, carpets (sometimes beside an English fireside so quaint it looked like a painting) and listen to The Professor read. 

It’s amazing what reading aloud can do for your appreciation of books. One of my earliest memories of literature is hiding under the couch cushions when my parents got to the part about Black Riders in The Fellowship of the Ring. It was a rite of passage when I got to take a turn in intoning the passages of Little House on the Prairie. And even in college, as an adult living in another country for three months, having The Professor read aloud took me back to that childhood place. 
A human voice reading does not just transmit information–it conveys experience, wisdom, and a passion for life. We learn from being read to, but it’s much more than an academic exercise. The vocal rhythms whisk us back to a time when wandering bards passed down ancient traditions–history, legend, theology–through oral song and story. 
To read aloud from a book proclaims your investment, both in the book and in the person being read to. Now that I am an adult, reading aloud to my students is one of my favorite parts of our lessons–getting to use my voice and presence to bring alive the literature I believe in. It’s a manifestation of care through quality time, combined with the wisdom and learning contained in the book itself. 
Though The Canterbury Tales may never be my favorite work of literature, listening to the recording of it today brought tears to my eyes. Much more than a homework assignment, reading aloud became a memory. 
Do you ever read aloud? Have any special memories of someone reading to you? 

5 thoughts on “Wandering Bards

  1. So true. Hearing a book read (preferably in person) is so different. Your imagination has more space when you are free of looking at the words.This was one really amazing aspect of seeing some of the aboriginal culture in Australia. Their culture is *entirely* an oral tradition… no writing. All of the life lessons and knowledge of how to survive is passed down from grandparents to grandchildren in stories and songs. Having the dreamtime be part of every day life and survival alters how you see the world and the landscape around you… kind of merges the two 🙂


  2. I don’t have memories of this from when I was a kid, but I’ve heard my mom make comments, like recommending books to new parents that she used to read to us, or saying how I used to sit in kindergarten and read to a group of other children. So I’m sure it was a big part in shaping me.And I totally relate to the college feeling, “We’re supposed to read *and* understand this?!” There’s a reason readers of Shakespeare should see it performed, in the original language.I will add this, I’m not sure audiobooks, though exactly what you’re talking about here, have the same effect. I haven’t listened to many, but the few I have seem more like acting than experiencing the words while reading aloud. Maybe I’m wrong.


  3. Great post! I couldn’t listen to the link, but I’m trying to imagine it.I love reading aloud — and listening to stories read aloud. I have a significant memory of my father reading The Hobbit to me and my sisters on a camping trip once, sitting around the campfire… brilliant.And I listen to audio books frequently. I love the way the story unfolds in my head and the way the dialogue is interpreted, although this can colour the experience. Usually in a good way.I’ve been meaning to write a post for ages about how some friends and I went away for weekends to read the Harry Potter books as they came out. We sat around reading them to each other. It was fantastic. You might have inspired me to write that post…


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