Silent Reading

April 28, 2000

Saint Augustine (354 - 430), Bishop of Hippo, experienced an ecstatic conversion to Christianity in the late summer of 386. In the "Confessions" he describes the event: He could no longer bear the confines of the house, and in terrible excitement he ran into the garden, and flung himself under a fig tree, where he burst into passionate weeping, and poured out his heart to God. Suddenly he seemed to hear a voice bidding him "Take up and read. Take up and read." He left off weeping, and taking a Bible in hand, opened it and read in silence the passage from the Epistle to the Romans (xiii, 13, 14) "Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof." Augustine adds to this account. "I had neither desire nor need to read any further." (Confessions, VIII. xi. § 30)

We are now not surprised to see a commuter train filled with men and women silently reading magazines, newspapers or books. Indeed, we would be disturbed to hear a babel of voices, each one laboriously sounding out the words, perhaps a number of times before the sense penetrated. This is how children read, and small ones at that. Children, when they are taught to read, learn to read aloud as much to indicate their degree of understanding as to demonstrate that they are actually doing something and not just looking idly at the pictures. An adult who haltingly read aloud would be a figure of fun, an annoyance. Adults read to themselves, enclosed in a cocoon of words, silent and oblivious to their surroundings, disturbing no one, not even moving. What they are reading is a secret known to the reader only.

Much of this can be attributed to the common availability of printed matter, and much to the prevalence of literacy. In Augustine's day, books were scarce and expensive, and all of us who have painfully deciphered a handwritten letter will need no convincing that, as legibility goes, printing is far superior to handwriting. Those who learned to read and write did so because literacy was a tool necessary to their livelihoods. Some few of them read a great deal, and wrote perhaps even more than they read, and the habit became enough ingrained in them, and the words so familiar, that they moved imperceptibly from reading in a mumble, to moving the lips, to reading with no outward indication that they were doing anything at all.

It is my understanding that Augustine's habit of reading to himself created quite a sensation. People could not figure out the trick. How could he understand without hearing the words? Was he reading or pretending to read? The idea then prevalent was that the book spoke to the reader, much as one person spoke to another. Silent reading was as much a surprise as might be telepathy. The book was not something that spoke to the reader alone, but to anyone who could hear him, literate or no. But much as only Augustine heard the voice that commanded him to "Take up and read," did the words that he read utter their silent thunder to him alone.

(April 28, 2000)

7 Oct 2004

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Silent Reading
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