Ton van Kalmthout

Reading Aloud and Silent Reading

Reading Aloud and Silent Reading

Designed to be read aloud to a circle of listeners, nineteenth-century literature is often strongly declamatory in tone. As this went out of fashion in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, a still largely oral literary culture evolved into one in which the silent enjoyment of literature would finally gain the upper hand.

The way literature was taught to children at secondary school (a substantial proportion of the literary public) in the decades around the turn of the century provides a useful basis on which to study this change. Differing groups of (intended or actual) consumers of literature, categorised in terms of age, gender, intellectual level etc., were not only presented with a literary canon and a repertoire of knowledge about poetry and literary history, but were also taught ways in which they could or should relate to literature. Initially, the traditional practice of reciting texts and reading them aloud still proved useful. It even seemed to gather new momentum with the appearance of the gramophone, which gave teachers a cheap and easy way of using professional performers to motivate their students by the example they set. At the same time, however, the advocates of ‘silent reading’ were gaining more and more ground. Their victory was due not only to new ideas about art and the emergence of new forms of literature, but also to new pedagogical insights.

These developments also influenced school book production in the decades immediately prior to the Second World War. Anthologies and other books designed for the teaching of literature now contained texts supposed to be particularly suitable for pupils to read to themselves, sometimes accompanied by special ‘silent reading exercises’. The proposed paper examines the changing ways in which young people taught in this way related to literature and looks at the books thought appropriate to this new approach to reading. It focuses in particular on the situation in the Netherlands. The paper presents the results of a research project entitled ‘Homogeneity and multiformity: Education in Dutch literature as a tool for cultural repertory formation 1800-1940’, supported by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO).

Making Books, Shaping Readers

School of English, O' Rahilly Building, University College Cork, Ireland.