Before I was ever a writer, I was a reader, and long before that I was a listener.
At my secondary school, in second or third year English Literature, we read an autobiography titled This Time Next Week. The author related how, as a schoolboy, he was suddenly struck by the beauty of language when a teacher called on him to read aloud from The Song of Solomon.
For, lo, the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone;
At first he read the passage with a boy's haste, bored and careless like all his classmates, but then he read again, heard the poetry in the words, and was enthralled.
I identified strongly with that experience, although for me it has been a long seduction rather than a coup de foudre. It started, I believe, with books like Fox in Socks, the Dr. Seuss tongue-twister that begs to be read out loud at any age (the depth of my knowledge about tweetle beetles is ridiculous). It continued with folk tales — some sung as ballads, some related by storytellers, some read — which was how I first encountered the West African tale that would shape my first novel.
When a teacher read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to our primary school class, and followed up with The Hobbit the next year, I was sucked into the Epic. The Hobbit led to The Lord of the Rings and its appendices, which led to Beowulf. I had to rely on the English translation for understanding, but sometimes I liked to voice the rhythms of the Saxon text without bothering too much about what it meant.
Dramatic poetry, poetic prose, and drama in rhyme and blank verse also drew me in. Robert Browning could be both conversational and clever in perfect metre, one moment reminiscing about his fanboyish awe of Shelley, the next muttering obscurely about Keats and porridge. Khalil Gibran (The Prophet) wrote prose that sounded as lyrical as a translation from an ancient, sacred text, and Edmond Rostand (Cyrano de Bergerac) raised the art of polyphonic banter to new heights. In my everyday life there were calypsonians invoking Gregorian chant in their rhythms and priests quoting dialect poetry from the pulpit. From all this I learned that music, poetry and prose are but stages on a continuum of communication, easily blurring their boundaries and stealing techniques from each other.
The spoken word endures. In the grand sweep of history, books are a newfangled technology. Before the bound tome, before the printed word, there was the speaker and the listener. I once read a favourite book to a friend whose first language was not English, not because he wasn't capable of reading it himself, but because it had been read to me and I wanted him to discover it the same way. Read a book to someone — child or adult. Read their faces, their silent response to the story. It's an old tradition, and a beautiful one.