Silent reading

Reading in silence was uncommon a thousand years ago. Encountering a silent reader, sitting there in an open eyed trance was peculiar experience. Saint Augustine’s 384 A.D description of seeing his teacher Saint Ambrose reading silently gives a hint of how novel the sight must have been.

When he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still.

A reaction alien to us early 21st century types who associate reading with keeping you mouth shut. The “You Got Style” blog has some useful background on the above quote.

Reading was a vocal business for most of human history. Early books (specifically in Europe) had no punctuation or spaces. Just a mass of letters crammed together to maximise space on precious paper or vellum. Reading meant sorting out the words by following the letters with a finger and reciting the words as you “discover” them. Similar to the way children learn to read by reciting. Eventually a “heavy reader” would develop the ability to pick out words mentally.

Silent reading ability may have been a indication of considerable learning. Yet it was reading aloud enforced the superiority of the literate over the illiterate hordes. At a practical level, reading aloud transmitted knowledge to those lacking the privilege of literacy. Politically it  gave the reader control over information. The very act of transiting words out of a book into sound  was a demonstration of superiority over the  “listeners”. When you read aloud you announce your as the Google of your community. Even if you were a slave, purchased for the purpose of reading to you master.   

Now here you are – reading this with that soundless voice in your the head. Thanks to the inevitable evolution of human society, typography and technology your silent reading ability is now regarded to a reflex. Not a sort sought after ability. Though there are parts of the country where reading blogs in any language might still be a privilege.

Yet in most cases reading is not considered a sign of learning or wisdom. Reflect on the obvious of how far we have come. And get back to work!!


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