I’ve been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest book, Leadership in Turbulent Times. I’ve always been fascinated by what makes leaders “great” and the habits they develop to distinguish themselves.
In my lifetime, I’ve learned so much from President Lincoln, but one thing Kearns Goodwin described hit me. In Lincoln’s early twenties, he began doing something beautifully transformative. Lincoln was self-taught, and books were his friends. He would often walk ten miles to borrow a book from a friend or fellow attorney because he knew that the key to growing as a person and in his profession was to absorb knowledge and thus build wisdom. Yet it wasn’t the simple act of reading that distinguished Lincoln. Kearns Goodwin described an essential way in which Lincoln was shaped, “Some leaders learn by writing, others by reading, still others by listening. Lincoln preferred reading aloud in the presence of others. ‘When I read aloud,’ Lincoln later explained, ‘two senses catch the idea: first I see what I read, second, I hear it, and therefore I remember it better.'”
Lincoln was a master storyteller. In fact in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, there are multiple humorous scenes where Lincoln tells stories to either ease tension or to simply draw people in. This clip in particular is worth watching—you can see why people were so drawn to him. This scene may be fictional, but it depicts the typical way Lincoln would warm others with story.
What made Lincoln a great leader is worth being examined. Quite simply, reading out loud made him a better storyteller, and people respond to storytelling. Thus, storytelling was part of what made him a unique and effective a political leader.
This past autumn, my family and I have been reading aloud Adventures in Darkness by Tom Sullivan, a book I worked on many years ago when I was at Thomas Nelson. My wife and I did not have children then, but I always thought the book was perfect to read to a child as it detailed the summer adventures of the author Tommy, an eleven-year-old blind child. It is full of daring adventures of Tommy and his blind friends escaping from the Perkins School for the Blind, boating down the Charles River in Boston, and jumping off cliffs to test his courage. Tommy also shares stories of adversity in how he dealt with bullies. Lastly, courage from a boy in his neighborhood led him to understand true friendship. The book was meant to be read aloud. Perhaps Tom Sullivan being blind has helped him discover his greater gift, which is storytelling. Our girls have loved Adventures in Darkness, and the book has come alive to me again by reading it out loud and seeing the immediate reactions from my daughters.
Sarah Mackenzie, in her book The Read-Aloud Family, shares, “A book can’t change the world on its own. But a book can change readers. And readers? They can change the world.” Yes, Lincoln truly did change our country and arguably the world, as he is referenced by worldwide leaders often as an inspiration for how to lead in difficult times. As my girls and I read Adventures in Darkness, the themes of empathy, empowerment, adventure, courage, faith, and friendship became clearer to us. The stories became embedded in our hearts, not just our minds. Mackenzie shares more in her book about why we should read with our children, “We read with our children because it gives both them and us an education of the heart and mind. Of intellect and empathy. We read together and learn because stories teach us how to love.” The lessons are bountiful.
There are countless lessons to be learned by reading a book out loud, but ultimately it helps us in the following ways:
- Focus. The reader is forced to focus his or her attention on the details to emphasize what was going on in the story.
- Imagination. The listener imagines the scene as he or she listens as opposed to focusing solely on following the words.
- Truth is embraced. Mackenzie shares, “If you want a child to know the truth, tell him the truth. If you want a child to love the truth, tell him a story.” God’s truth echoes through good storytelling.
- Community. People are brought together to be entertained and educated. The world promotes isolation through watching Netflix on their iPad or iPhone, but storytelling offers community.
- Discussion. Reading together aloud affords the opportunity to stop and dialogue about a particular part of the story. If you are alone reading, you have no one to talk to but yourself other than God.
- Legacy. My wife and I recognize that by doing more reading aloud, we offer a legacy of experience to others to go and do the same. What a gift!
I wonder what lessons will stick with my daughters as they listen to a book like Adventures in Darkness? Written for children and adults alike, Sullivan strikes a chord that C.S. Lewis pointed out in relation to what makes a good story, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” Adventures in Darkness achieves the goal. We learn that even at a young age, stories are not to be abandoned but embraced. We also learn that reading stories aloud can have their part in changing a nation, perhaps the world like with Abraham Lincoln.
Let this be a reminder that reading and reading aloud are gifts to be instilled early in life and will be a friend among many for generations. Reading aloud may be new to you, but it is never too late to begin.