Reading and silence

August 20, 2017 1 Comment

Antonello da Messina, St Augustine (c1472)

I’m working my way, slowly – that seems the best way – through Sara Maitland’s A book of silence, and I’ve reached the part where she discusses the paradoxical relationship between reading and silence. 

On the one hand, reading the way we do it today is a silent communion between writer and reader.  Silent, on this reading, means an absence of sound.  But silence can also imply an absence of language, and in this case reading is a far from silent affair.  In reading words whizz about, from writer to reader and sometimes in the other direction, and usually at a faster speed than is normal in oral speech because the eyes move more rapidly than the voice-box.

But, Sara Maitland says, silent reading (in her first sense) wasn’t always like this.  Until the third century CE reading in silence, she maintains, was unknown or highly unusual.  She quotes St Augustine’s surprise that anyone should not utter aloud the words they read.  Augustine had arrived in Milan from his home in north Africa around the year 385, and called there on one of his mother’s friends, Ambrose, who happened to be the bishop of the city and later became its patron saint.  (Much later he lent his name to Bibliotheca Ambrosiana, the famous library founded in Milan in 1609 by Cardinal Federico Borromeo as a weapon in his campaign to counter the protestant reformation.)

Bibliotheca Ambrosiana (Milan)

Augustine comes across Ambrose reading:

When he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart explored the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still… he never read aloud.  We would sit there quietly, for no one had the heart to disturb him when he was so engrossed in study. … Perhaps he was afraid that, if he read aloud, some obscure passage in the author he was reading might raise a question in the mind of an attentive listener, and he would then have to explain the meaning or even discuss some of the more difficult points. 
(Confessions, book 6, chapter 3, in R.S. Pine-Coffin’s translation)

St Ambrose mosiac (Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio, Milan)

But Ambrose was by no means the first to indulge in solitary silent reading.  Examples occur throughout Greek and Roman history, as Alberto Manguel notes in his A history of reading.  Manguel treats these as exceptional, but probably they were not.  Recent scholarship tends to regard the ‘no silent reading in antiquity’ consensus as a myth.  Certainly Ptolemy, in the second century CE, is clear that people read silently as a matter of course.  Since ancient texts were written without line breaks or indeed any punctuation, preparatory silent reading would have been almost essential before a confident oral public reading.

What surprised Augustine, it seems, was not that Ambrose read silently but that he chose to do so in the presence of other people, unwilling to be distracted by their questions about the text.

Most people, of course, at that time and for centuries after, were unable to read, and for them ‘reading’ meant being read to, aloud.  Only with the protestant reformation did it become more important that ordinary people could read independently, so that they could absorb the word of God without the need for intermediary ‘readers aloud’.

Gwen John, The student (Manchester Art Gallery)

Since then silent reading has been the norm, and reading aloud restricted to certain conventional forms, like the sermon or lecture, or the politician’s autocued speech or the child’s bedtime story.  We take it for granted that the sharing of thoughts between writer and reader is best done in private, or if not in private – as in a library or on a train – without other people listening in, intruding or becoming otherwise involved.  If we’re on our own, we sit in silence, and our tongue, like Ambrose’s, doesn’t move.

Or does it?  I suspect most of us do read aloud to ourselves on some occasions.  I find myself doing it in at least two circumstances – when reading difficult texts in languages other than my mother tongue, where reading aloud helps to improve comprehension, and when reading poems – or at least poems that rely heavily for their effect, or affect, on the sounds their words make.  And mention of poetry reminds us that speaking the words aloud, more than once, is an obvious means of committing them to memory, if we need to do that.

Izaac Walton window (Winchester Cathedral)

So maybe there’s no firm boundary between silent and non-silent reading, any more than there was in Augustine’s day.  And maybe today, in our digitally rich environment, the boundary is becoming even more fluid.  For years, being ‘read to’, through the radio or audiobooks, has been as familiar an experience as it was for medieval church congregations.  Now internet search engines can accept our enquiries and give us their answers orally, through interfaces like Siri, and devices such as Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home can listen out continually for our instructions on all manner of things, local and distant, and ‘read out’ to us what they think we need to hear.  Anyone entering a university library can’t help being struck by the absence of silence: most students seem to prefer an atmosphere of constant ambient sound, amid what tends to be social rather than individual reading and learning.  Even those who seem to be private readers have earphones attached to their heads, so the silent words from the page or, more likely, the screen arrive with a constant musical accompaniment.

Yet silent reading continues.  The networked, digital world, for all its rich multimedia capacity and heavily socialised ethic, keeps room for the old, word-based communion of single author and single reader, whether through text messages, Kindle books or digitised articles.  In other words, reading isn’t and probably never was a single activity, but a spectrum of different ways of gathering and comprehending the words of others.

Which leaves us with Sara Maitland’s paradox, that, even if we read in private ‘silence’, the words we’re reading reverberate inside our heads.  Reading, however it’s done, is inescapably ‘noisy’.  This gives Maitland, a tireless advocate of silence as an overlooked virtue, some difficulty.  If the point of true silence is to rid ourselves of distraction and attachment to the material world, then even private reading has to be banned.  ‘Should a person seeking true silence’, she asks, ‘be reading?’  Classical Buddhism rejected reading as an activity, and the eastern Orthodox church was also suspicious of excessive reading.  Maitland herself admits that she sometimes turns to reading as a way of escaping silence and its benefits.  She confesses to a failing for romantic novels.  But of course she’s unable to ban reading from her silent republic (instead, she urges herself to read more slowly, and more attentively).  Nor can she stop herself writing a 300 page book on the subject for other people to read – aloud or in silence.

Comments (1)

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  1. Phil Hughes says:

    I read this book a while ago when I thought I needed some silence to relieve some of the stress I had been experiencing at the time. I managed to get to the end of the book, despite finding a large part of it repetitive. I have since discovered that actual silence would drive you mad. We are subjected to sound from the moment of our conception until we hear our last heartbeat. I gave it to a friend who only managed to read seven or eight pages, because she thought the idea was horrendous.

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