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Reading to your kids is time well spent

Reading to your kids is time well spent

Oral storytelling yields emotional, cognitive, and social benefits

World Magazine, February 2022


Meghan Cox Gurdon Illustration by Jonathan Bruns

Reading to your kids is time well spent
Meghan Cox Gurdon is a children’s book critic for The Wall Street Journal and a former foreign reporter. She is a wife, mother of five, and recently, a grandmother. Gurdon’s 2019 book The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction presents compelling evidence for the emotional, cognitive, and social benefits of oral storytelling.

On a recent Friday afternoon, we met virtually and discussed how the book’s message is perhaps more relevant now coming out of pandemic lockdowns and amid heated debate over the content in contemporary children’s books. Here is our conversation, edited and shortened.

You were raised an only child in a broken home. Your parents stopped reading aloud to you once you could read independently. What prompted you to read aloud to your kids? I was at a dinner party one night with my husband, who was then my fiancé. We had our drinks, and the hostess, my friend Lisa, excused herself. I thought she was going to stir something in the kitchen. She never came back. We asked her husband where she went. He replied, “Oh, she’s just reading to the boys.” This was my Pauline moment. I thought, If I ever have children, that is what I’m going to do. When we did get married and had a baby, I was drawing on this complete reservoir of ignorance. The one thing I knew I could do was read to this baby. It taught me how to be a mother.

You stuck with it for the next 25 years, reading to your children nightly? To borrow from C.S. Lewis’ phrase, I was surprised by the joy of having a family. I liked reading aloud in the evening because it was a kind of anchor to the day. It held it together. It was a destination we were all moving toward before bed. The joy of it is … whenever you can get to it, your children love it. I also read to them in the bath. You can do it anywhere, in the car while you’re stuck in traffic, on the subway, over breakfast. Fathers can read, or aunts, uncles, and grandparents.

In The Enchanted Hour, you explore the science behind reading aloud. What surprised you? I had to fend off feelings of regret and sorrow over the things I hadn’t known. I never thought about how quickly their brains were growing. I do think that reading aloud was the best thing I have done as a mother. It made me grateful that this was our technique. When I go back in my mind, I wish I had read them more poetry and nonfiction. I wanted them to have a kind of cultural acquaintance. It was an opportunity to introduce them to types of literature and to more sophisticated texts that they wouldn’t read on their own. I was conscious in that sense.

I do think that reading aloud was the best thing I have done as a mother.

In the tech era, screens increasingly separate family members under the same roof. You argue reading aloud shouldn’t stop when kids become teenagers. It’s incredibly hard. The truth is, it’s up to us as individuals and as parents to carve out some part of life that is not online. I wrote the book and didn’t know the pandemic was coming. One of the central and still-important arguments of The Enchanted Hour is that reading aloud cannot solve the problem of our tech addictions, but it can and does mitigate the ill effects. Teenagers may not want to sit with you necessarily, but they’re still willing to let you read. You can stand at the kitchen bar while they’re eating their porridge and read to them. Not all of them will take it after a certain point.

What about audio books? Audiobooks have gotten much better. When you’re listening, you’re participating in this millennia old human tradition of oral storytelling. You are sharing a story, and it is forming this wonderful triangle where you’re all inside it together. You have that in common. You can pause it and talk about it. It’s wonderful for car journeys. You’re trapped in the car together.

Did you ever see yourself becoming a read-aloud evangelist? I’m honored to be an evangelist for this cause. It develops people’s interior lives. It brings beauty into the minds of children and their parents. It goes the other way too. My mom has been in bad health, so I’ve been reading to her. She wanted me to read Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. The last time she heard them was when her mother read them to her. I read them to my children.

So, the elderly and ailing need what reading aloud has to offer, too? It pains me to reflect that loneliness was already a cultural phenomenon before the pandemic locked millions of people into solitary confinement. However grievous the toll was before, it’s worse now. I can see the cost of isolation on my own mother’s health and happiness. I think a lot of us have those stories now. When we read aloud to people starved for touch and for culture, we are using our most human assets to replenish them. Time, attention, physical presence, and the voice become gifts, as do language and poetry. It is one of the most healing and regenerative things we can do. My goodness, our culture needs it.

How do you find books worth reading aloud? In my own experience, we mostly read older books. We had a couple of unpleasant surprises when we read more contemporary books … disappointing story twists and shocking moments of political indoctrination. We tend to read things that have been tested by time and lasted. When it comes to the column, I always look for good writing and beautiful art. There’s this trend in picture books right now to have very few words. That’s less satisfactory as a read-aloud.

You took heat for a 2011 Wall Street Journal column pointing out the lurid content in young adult (YA) books. What about now? I don’t know that I can take credit for this, but afterwards I did notice a sharp drop-off in the flow of really lurid books and in particular those depicting cutting and other kinds of self-harm. Maybe my WSJ piece was a signal to the industry that it had gone too far, but maybe it was just that the trend had run its course. YA literature is a trendy business. Today there’s a huge amount of social-justice, gender-bending ideological catechesis in YA books. Sometimes I find it outraging, but mostly I find it boring and unimaginative. I have to hope that at some level, teenagers will eventually think so too. That said, there are wonderful new YA books to be found—and I try to find them!

Any recent young adult books you enjoyed? Daniel Nayeri’s Everything Sad Is Untrue, Pony by R.J. Palacio, Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree, Gary Paulsen’s posthumous Northwind. Ruta Sepetys is doing terrific work with historical fiction.

You argue reading aloud at home is a form of resistance against current trends? One of the regrettable things about this current moment is there are teachers, administrators, and people in the book industry who see themselves as presenting children with the correct, enlightened viewpoint. They see parents as possessing retrograde ideas. Parents, teachers, and administrators should have the shared mission of exposing children to what is true and beautiful. Reading aloud at home is a way of defending literature itself. Stories propel themselves from generation to generation because they’re full of goodness. We receive them and pass them on because we received something good. When we read books at home that our children won’t get anywhere else, we’re perpetuating those stories.

When schools and libraries purge literary classics, what do kids miss? You rob children of an understanding of their own past by denying them books that talk about it. In the Little House on the Prairie books, for example, there are things that will offend, by modern standards. People were not living as though the future would judge them. They were just getting on with it, as we do now. The Little House books are a fantastic historical document. There is this rich, messy human story of a settlement out West. At the same time, I think the reader is left in no doubt that it was a very complex situation. The painfulness of it was evident even at the time. If you deny children access to classic literature, you’re denying them an experience that generations of people before you have enjoyed. They’re not classics because some old white men with long beards designated them as classics. They are classics because they are well-loved books with universal messages and universal human points of contact.

If you deny children access to classic literature, you’re denying them an experience that generations of people before you have enjoyed.What are some positive things you see coming from the book industry? Picture books are going through a kind of golden age. The illustrations are remarkable—exquisite artistry and a stunning range of styles. Bookmaking is also more sophisticated now: Elegant designs, binding, paper, and typeface make many children’s books feel like treasures. The aesthetics have never been better. Modern children are spoiled for beauty.

How did you get your start critiquing children’s books for The Wall Street Journal? I was asked to review The English Roses [by Madonna] in 2003. It was fun to talk about a book, its author, and the cultural moment in a playful way.

What was it like to go from foreign reporting to reviewing children’s books? The shift was not disruptive because I had stopped foreign reporting after my second child arrived. I didn’t start critiquing children’s books until baby number five was on her way.

A lot of the skills that you need to report in the field are surprisingly useful when it comes to reviewing books. Each book is, in a way, a foreign country. It has its own landscape, language, and cultural norms. So coming in with eyes open, looking for ways that a book is similar to things you already know and different from things you know is useful in seeing what a book is in itself.

Your family’s favorite read-aloud books? Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown; Piper by Emma Chichester Clark; Treasure Island and Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson; The Long Winter and Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, and The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis; Dracula by Bram Stoker; My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett. We all loved Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. My youngest daughter adored repeated readings of Gillian Cross’ retelling of The Iliad and The Odyssey, illustrated by Neil Packer.

You recently became a grandma? I’ve built up a fabulous library. I’d forgotten how babies are these little puddings at the beginning. You’re reading to them, and they’re not paying attention, but it’s a good discipline, you know?


Mary JacksonMary is a book reviewer and reporter for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and Greenville University graduate who previously worked for the Lansing (Mich.) State Journal. Mary resides with her family in the San Francisco Bay area.

@mbjackson77

https://wng.org/articles/reading-to-your-kids-is-time-well-spent-1645423312

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Why Easter is music to my ears

This article was originally published on 10 April 2020

For Christians, this week is the most important of the year. And this year’s Holy Week is, around the world, unlike any other. With churches shut, and services either cancelled or streamed online from all-but empty buildings, people will have to find their own space for contemplation. And that goes for non-believers, and lapsed or non-practising Christians, as well as the unambiguously religious.

For my own part, whether I have been in or out of faith, this week has always presented the richest musical opportunities. And though we can’t gather together these days, we can at least swop sources online; so I thought I might share some of the music which for me makes up Holy Week, and which can be heard for free. It is a feast rich enough to fill the long weekend, if not a lifetime.

St Matthew Passion, Bach — performed by Willem Mengelberg and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Normally in this week I would try to go to a performance of Bach’s St John or St Matthew Passion. I’ve heard some wonderful performances — and a few average ones — over the years, but in some ways the performance doesn’t matter because absolutely nothing can diminish the power of these works.

Of course, both have been recorded more times than can be counted. But this week I have been listening again, as I have most years, to a performance whose style is out of fashion, but which has an extra depth that never fails to move me.

This is the recording of the Matthew Passion broadcast on Dutch Radio on Palm Sunday 1939. The annual performance at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam goes on to this day. But the conductor on this recording is the great Willem Mengelberg (1871-1951), who had been conducting the event since 1899.

While the circumstances of the performance should not overshadow the music, from the first bars of the opening chorus (“Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen” / “Come you daughters, help me to lament”) there is a portentousness that makes you breathe differently for a moment. The performance is moving in so many ways, particularly because we now know what that audience — whose occasional coughs you can hear — were about to go through.

Naturally I would recommend listening to it all, but if you must skip, then wait until the end of the opening chorus, then move on to the great Dutch soprano Jo Vincent sing the aria ‘Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben’ (‘Out of love my saviour is willing to die’) which starts at 2:00:59. The whole performance is miraculously available on YouTube. Just listen to those repetitions of the words ‘Aus Liebe’, with those flute notes tumbling down.

Lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae, Thomas Tallis — performed by the Deller Consort

Period recordings are always a fraught issue. And in general I listen to modern recordings. But sometimes a particular performance is the one you’ve been brought up with or heard first — or has some other quality which keeps it high above all others.

The Lamentations of Jeremiah by Thomas Tallis is one of the jewels of the Holy Week musical liturgy. There are several great recordings, but this one by the Deller Consort from 1958 is the one I listen to most often.

The voice of the countertenor Alfred Deller is not to everyone’s taste, and there are those weird gear-changes in his voice that a modern counter-tenor wouldn’t get away with. But he was a pioneer and it is the fragility of Deller’s voice soaring above the others that makes this recording so special. His voice sounds as though it is going to crack at any moment and in a way it is the sense of how nearly it could go wrong that makes it so clear that it is right.

The full Latin text (beginning “How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people”) can be found online. For me the first rendition of “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum” (“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return unto the Lord thy God”) at about 7 mins in here, is the demonstration of Tallis’s — and Deller’s — greatness.

The Lamentations, Edward Bairstow — performed by the Choir of York Minster

Whilst we are on Lamentations, there is one other setting from the English choral tradition which I must flag up, because it is much less well known than the Tallis. This one from Edward Bairstow was composed in 1942. I had never heard the piece until I started attending the Good Friday service at St Paul’s Cathedral some years ago: a great service, during which the choir always sing Tallis’s Litany in procession, the Allegri Miserere and this piece from Bairstow.

This is a recording from York Minster, but you can imagine the effect of those organ chords each time the choir sings ‘Jerusalem’ in St Paul’s. It isn’t a masterpiece, but it is a magnificent setting of the words and there is something deeply moving about a piece written so firmly in the Anglican choral tradition.

Versa est in luctum, Alonso Lobo — performed by the Tenebrae Choir

One piece that most certainly is a masterpiece — and from a very different choral tradition — is this work by the sixteenth century Spanish composer Alonso Lobo. In my experience, Lobo is one of those composers who, whenever you hear anything by him, makes you immediately wonder why you don’t listen to him all the time. The recording of his magnificent ‘Versa est in luctum’ here is sung by the wonderful ensemble Tenebrae, and was recorded last year in the church of St Bartholomew the Great in London.

The Latin words have been set by many other composers, including Victoria. But I know no setting as intensely moving as this one.

Versa est in luctum cithara mea, et organum meum in vocem flentium.
Parce mihi Domine, nihil enim sunt dies mei.

[My harp is turned to grieving and my flute to the voice of those who weep.
Spare me, O Lord, for my days are as nothing.]

Officium defunctorum: Parce mihi Domine — performed by the Monteverdi Choir

Incidentally, some people may know the setting of the last of these words by the slightly earlier Spanish composer Cristobal de Morales. The Hilliard Ensemble made it famous again some years ago in a setting with saxophone improvisation on top, but the sparseness of the original saxophone-less version remains my favourite. Here it is courtesy of the Monteverdi Choir.

Tenebrae responsories: O vos omnes, Tomás Luis de Victoria — performed by the Cambridge Singers

I could go on, of course. Anyone thinking I unfairly skirted over Victoria earlier might be placated by the fact that I don’t think any Holy Week should be gone through without at least one listen to his setting of ‘O vos omnes’ (the words are “O all you who walk by on the road, pay attention and see if there be any sorrow like my sorrow”). Any choristers reading will know that every phrase in this piece (especially ‘Attendite’) is as beautiful to sing as it is to hear.

Here is a recording (with score, for anyone who wants to sing along) by the Cambridge Singers.

Apparition de l’Eglise éternelle, Olivier Messiaen — performed by Olivier Latry

Of course, all of these works are works of mourning and lamentation, composed to fit the dejection and desolation of the Holy Week story, leading up to the crucifixion on Good Friday. Easter Sunday of course changes everything, including the music. But that is to get ahead of ourselves. Perhaps I might finish this Holy Week playlist with a rather different final piece.

One of my favourite composers is Olivier Messiaen, the great expander of the organ repertoire, and one of the searing religious visionaries of the twentieth century. One piece of his which is worth turning the volume up on (especially if you have some good bass speakers) is this short work from 1932, ‘Apparition de l’Eglise éternelle’ (‘The apparition of the eternal church’).

I select it not just because it looks forward to what is to come, but because this recording (with score) was made on the great organ of Notre Dame in Paris. Perhaps one Easter soon it will be played in that great cathedral again. It will be very much in the spirit of the Easter story if it is.

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As an addendum, I might just say: these are tough times for many musicians, like everybody else. Huge amounts of work have been lost. So if these recordings or others that have been made available on YouTube do appeal to you, please do buy the artists’ albums, or those of other groups, and think about booking tickets for their next concerts. We will get back the joy of hearing live music again.

https://unherd.com/2021/04/why-easter-is-music-to-my-ears/?=frlh

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Cantata Herr, deine Augen sehen nach dem glauben. BWV 102

The impressive opening chorus of ‘Herr, deine Augen sehen nach dem Glauben’, performed by the Netherlands Bach Society for All of Bach, comes straight to the point: the world is full of stubborn unbelievers, and however hard God punishes them, it does not help. The sermon for this tenth Sunday after Trinity is about the expulsion of the money-changers from the temple and the imminent destruction of Jerusalem. The errant souls are called upon to convert while they still can.

Recorded for the project All of Bach on October 11th 2014 at the Grote Kerk, Naarden. If you want to help us complete All of Bach, please subscribe to our channel http://bit.ly/2vhCeFB or consider donating http://bit.ly/2uZuMj5.

For the interview with conductor Jos van Veldhoven on ‘Herr, deine Augen sehen nach dem Glauben’ go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AAXLu…

For the interview with flute player Marten Root and violinist Shunske Sato on BWV 102 go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dsm_g… For more information on BWV 102 and this production go to http://allofbach.com/en/bwv/bwv-102/

All of Bach is a project of the Netherlands Bach Society / Nederlandse Bachvereniging, offering high-quality film recordings of the works by Johann Sebastian Bach, performed by the Netherlands Bach Society and her guest musicians. Visit our free online treasury for more videos and background material http://allofbach.com/en/. For concert dates and further information go to https://www.bachvereniging.nl/nederla…. Netherlands Bach Society Jos van Veldhoven, conductor Marjon Strijk, soprano Alex Potter, alto Thomas Hobbs, tenor Peter Kooij, bass

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Testing Is Our Way Out – WSJ

For now, social distancing is the best America can do to contain the Covid-19 pandemic. But if the U.S. truly mobilizes, it can soon deploy better weapons—advanced tests—that will allow the country to shift gradually to a protocol less disruptive and more effective than a lockdown.

Instead of ricocheting between an unsustainable shutdown and a dangerous, uncertain return to normalcy, the U.S. could mount a sustainable strategy with better tests and maintain a stable course for as long as it takes to develop a vaccine or cure. The country will once more be able to plan for the future, get back to work safely and avoid an economic depression. This will require massive investment to ramp up production and coordinate the construction of test centers. But the alternatives are even more costly.

Two types of testing will be essential. The first test, which relies on a technology known as the polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, can detect the virus even before a person has symptoms. It is the best way to identify who is infected. The second test looks not for the virus but for the antibodies that the immune system produces to fight it. This test isn’t so effective during the early stages of an infection, but since antibodies remain even after the virus is gone, it reveals who has been infected in the past.

Together, these two tests will give policy makers the data to make smarter decisions about who needs to be isolated and where resources need to be deployed. Instead of firing blindly, this data will let the country target its efforts.

Here’s a simple illustration of how test data can save lives. Every day millions of health-care professionals go to work without knowing whether they are infectious and might spread the virus to their colleagues. We both have close relatives on the front lines. As soon as one of them developed a cough, she pulled herself out of service. But at that point she may have been infectious for several critical days. If she and her colleagues had all been tested every day, her infection would have been caught earlier and she would have isolated herself sooner.

To be used as a screening mechanism at the beginning of a shift, the test would need to be able to give a result within minutes. Developers are making progress on speeding up these PCR tests—so much so that the aforementioned physician received the results from her second test, conducted five days after the first, before those from the first test. Abbott and Roche, two pharmaceutical companies, are moving forward with tests that can decrease reporting times from days or hours to minutes. Now that the doctor has recovered, an antibody test could help determine when she can return to the frontlines of patient care.

As testing capacity expands, the same tests could be offered to all essential workers, such as police officers and emergency technicians, and then to other overlooked but critical workers—pharmacists, grocery clerks, sanitation staff. The next step would be to test people throughout the country at random to get up-to-date information about who is infected now and who has ever been infected.

For those who are currently infected, governments can provide immediate assistance to make sure they don’t infect anyone else, especially family members. Those infected before who now have antibodies may be less susceptible to reinfection. If that is proved in the weeks to come, they could also return to work.

Putting this system in place will take resources, creativity and hard work. Test developers will have to increase the production rate of kits by an order of magnitude. In his work fighting Ebola in West Africa, Dr. Shah saw how a virus can cause a 30% reduction in economic output. Mr. Romer’s back-of-the-envelope calculation is that the recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic has already caused a 20% reduction in U.S. output, which means the country is losing about $350 billion in production each month. If a $100 billion investment in a crash program to make antibody and PCR tests ubiquitous brought a recovery one month sooner, it would more than pay for itself.

Building this testing system would be complicated and require the best of American science, business and philanthropy working together. But it is the type of challenge that the U.S. has overcome before. It isn’t viable to wait a year or two for a vaccine before getting people back to work safely. To save lives and prevent a depression, testing on a massive scale is essential.

Mr. Romer is a professor at New York University and a 2018 Nobel laureate in Economics. Dr. Shah is president of the Rockefeller Foundation and served as administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, 2010-15.

via Testing Is Our Way Out – WSJ.

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