The Myths of Silent Reading

If you’ve opened up this blog to read it, chances are you aren’t doing it aloud. But have you ever wondered when silent reading became the norm? According to Paul Saenger in his 1997 book Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading, ancient and early medieval European manuscripts were written in  scriptura continua. Inotherwordstextslookedratherlikethis. If that was hard to understand, imagine if, assuming you were one of the few fortunate enough to be literate, every text you encountered looked like that. Simply, it was hard to read without sounding out the syllables. Throughout early medieval Europe, however, Irish monks, and later British and continental monks, began to spend hours in tedium parsing out words in what we would now do with a space bar. Saenger argues it was with these spaces that scholastic philosophers began a novel practice: silent reading.

Now, before we ebulliently sally forth thinking that in the days before spaced words, all Europeans went around reading every text out loud, we must remember that with all historical debates (particularly on how people in history lived in a quotidian sense), there is debate. Quite a lot of debate. And often copious evidence for both parties to make a case. The Cambridge classicist, M.F. Burnyeat, has spent ample time cataloguing evidence in antiquity where people were reading in silent contemplation, not always in groups or muttering to themselves. Almost 50 years ago, the august scholar Bernard Knox offered great evidence that reading silently and to oneself was known and practiced in antiquity. However, as A.K. Gavrilov claimed, the idea that people have always read silently is rather less dramatic than centuries of people reading only aloud.

Of course, this debate to be made between tweed clad classicists and medievalists misses another side the polygon that is consciousness. That is, does silent reading really exist at all? When we read, is there anything silent? All of us who have read, which is to say, all of us reading this blogpost, know that to read means to contend with the other boisterous noises in our head. In a recent piece in the New Republic, John Biguenet recalls that the losing of his home after Katrina left him to a state where reading became impossible (though writing was not, as he wrote 15 columns on Katrina for the New York Times). Biguenet concludes that silent reading does not exist, that to silently read is to silence ones self, and to hand over consciousness to someone else. He cites numerous articles in the field of neurology which have illustrated how reading, itself, is processed similarly to auditory sounds. In other words, we read similarly to how we hear. However, if greatly condense and simplify the thoughts of the 20th-century Gilles Deleuze, all Ideas exists in the swarm of differential thoughts within the fractured I. Perhaps then, there is no silent reading as their is no silent thought (and how we read is really not quite through hearing, per say, but in thinking through the text). As Biguenet points out, when we are sick or in a state of great shock, it may be too hard to push our reading self through other worries. At the very least, this should remind us that reading is a dynamic and active use of time, not merely passivity nor escape. Even is if it done quietly.

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