The Big Read — Fahrenheit 451 re-introduces Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel, “Fahrenheit 451,” to San Diego and encourages everyone to read literature just for the joy of it. Events include guest authors, community reads, book discussions, workshops and much more. Check out the full schedule here.

As an actor who has been regularly reading aloud stories, poems and essays, the subject of reading literature to others is understandably interesting to me. I started doing this as a regular thing when Write Out Loud was born on the stage of the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach one sunny June day for an audience of about 40 friends and family members, whom I thought we were merely entertaining with a light diversion.

Now, nearly six years later, I realize that reading aloud to others is a service of great value. Entertainment, while an essential element of reading aloud successfully, is only part of it. It’s not, by any means, the most important part. Reading aloud can transport the listener to another world of characters and complications, true, but it can stimulate, uplift, motivate, teach, counsel, console and inspire, too.

There is a one difference between reading silently to oneself and reading aloud to others that I think is critical, but easy to overlook. When reading aloud you must utter and understand every word, phrase, inflection and intention of the author. Otherwise, you literally do not know what you’re talking about. I daresay most of us, myself included, sometimes skip over troublesome spots in the texts we read silently. We think “I’ll look that up later.” Not so for the reader who reads aloud. He must nail down and make clear choices about everything the story contains.

This distinction alone lifts the story that is read aloud to a higher level for the listeners. I once read Evelyn Waugh’s delightful dark story, “Mr. Loveday’s Little Outing,” at a nursing home in Bankers Hill. The audience was quite elderly and I wondered if they would follow Waugh’s now dated (though, to me, elegantly) elongated sentences and his use of so many “British-isms.” Not only did they follow the story, they did so with obvious pleasure and ease. One charming lady afterwards commented that she “…so enjoyed the vocabulary. We never hear it anymore.”

We all know that reading to young children is essential to helping them grasp language and, ultimately, reading. But in Bankers Hill, I was serving people at the opposite end of life. They, too, benefited from stimulation and entertainment. Since then I’ve learned that reading aloud to seniors literally stimulates synaptic activity in their brains that is not just enjoyable; it is essential for prolonging mentally acuity.

One late afternoon last March, I was invited to read Ray Bradbury’s famous short story, “The Pedestrian,” (which strikes me as a precursor to his landmark novel, “Fahrenheit 451”), to a small group of middle school students at the University Community branch of the San Diego Public Library. The kids were there, not to hear me, but to spend their after-school hours in the safety of the library, waiting for their parents to pick them up after work. They were happily preoccupied with every “non-library” activity they could devise: chatting, texting, playing electronic games and just hanging out. I sat down with three boys who were already seated at a table for four and started reading. As Bradbury’s tale of a lone man who clung to peculiar habits like walking and thinking unfolded, the boys’ attention focused. By the time the protagonist was stopped by the faceless police car, their attention was rapt and more young men had joined us. At the conclusion, seven boys and a girl were sitting and standing listening to every terse sentence and deliberately chosen word. The story ended. There was a silent moment and then one boy declared, “That was a fantastic story.” Another said “Yeah. You know the government really does things like that.” Yet another agreed, asserting the government does such things “all the time. It’s unconstitutional!” They continued their discussion as I departed.

Need I add that I felt my mission was accomplished?

Reading aloud to others has long been the mission of Write Out Loud. It has also become my personal mission. It is the way I am trying to improve the quality of life — one audience at a time — in our community.

Walter Ritter is the executive director of Write Out Loud.

Want to spark discussion? Start a conversation by submitting a commentary at Fix San Diego.

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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