For my birthday this year, Great Scott gave me The Best American Essays 2009, which was edited by Mary Oliver. The language in the chosen essays of this volume seems to me richer than that of most contemporary essays. Many of Oliver's choices echo the style of some of her own favorite writers, Victorians such as Emerson and Whitman, whose writing require readers to slow down and immerse themselves deeply in the flow of words rather than skimming merrily over the top of them. The Younger Daughter and I have been reading George MacDonald's Phantastes on weekend mornings and snow days, and here, too, I've been struck by the richness of the words and wording of the Victorians. My students--most of them--would never be able to follow sentences like these, sentences which wind and curl like vines up pillars or large-trunked trees, sprouting side branches and arabesque tendrils before finally growing into comprehensive maturity and blooming gloriously into full, many-petaled meaning.
As I was reading to The Younger Daughter earlier this week, I began wondering if she might be better prepared to read and comprehend such sentences on her own for having heard them read aloud by someone else. The human mind is a great recognizer of patterns. If, when it begins a complex task, it has some basic patterns in place, basic patterns that will aid in the comprehension and execution of the complex task at hand, that task will be accomplished much more easily and with better results. My students have all acquired the skill, the pattern knowledge, of word-calling; however many to most of the students in my classes have not developed an ear for written language. They don't hear the words in their heads as they read. The rhythms and melodies of the written word blow past them like so many dry, leaves; inflection and the subtle meaning it carries is lost. I wish all children were read to aloud. Written words are symbols for our quickened breath passing between tongue and tooth, for living human spirit shaped into transmissible entities leaving our lips. Expecting a child to read well without her having experienced the breath of life blown across the pages of books and into her waiting ear is like handing her a bird from the taxidermist and requiring her to comprehend and demonstrate flight.