Reflections in/on Silence

I can remember a time when I did not read alone. In my boyhood, I would nest in my mother’s warm embrace, and she would read to all kinds of stories before I drifted off to sleep. Now, at 20, many of these tales have faded from my memory, but one continues to stand against the tide of time: Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet. I remember my mother effortlessly articulating each word aloud, filling my ears with sounds that augmented the symbols I followed on the pages. Sometimes, I would even try to decipher the symbols aloud, celebrating each correct pronunciation. Soon I would be asleep, overwhelmed by the beautifully stimulating experience, but my childish imagination continued to forge a link between myself and the literature.

Now, I read alone. Not always in solitude, but in absolute silence. I do not remember when I started to do so, but I feel as though this change was accompanied by praise for a step towards independence; no longer would I need someone to read to or for me. With this greater sense of self came a greater understanding of it’s insecurities and fragilities. Why I don’t read aloud anymore strikingly resembles why I don’t like to sing: a fear of my own voice. When I read a section of Borges’ “On the Cult of Books” aloud, I waited till my roommate was out of the room to undertake such a task. Initially, I tried to read at the speed I can proficiently read at in my mind; however, I found myself hampered by mispronunciations, and I would say words that weren’t on the page.

To combat this, I slowed down my reading, and paid greater attention to the text itself. The sounds and the symbols once again united, this time to drown out the noise and insecurities that plagued my mind. I could hear my voice aloud, and it sounded different. Gone were the crude tones of my casual voice. In its place was a voice of clarity, methodically picking sentences apart, painting ideas into my mind. Nonetheless, I couldn’t shake my embarrassment of this voice, as it seemed to grind against my preconceived notions of myself as a merry extrovert. That the boy who once tried so hard to be the class clown could sound like a well-read and a thoughtful man was almost too good to be true!

Perhaps this is what makes the “strange art of silent reading” so strange; devoid of concise vocalization, our minds and imaginations have the opportunity to obscure the deeper ideas of text. Such obstructions could stifle personal growth, just as avoiding discussion and conflict does. St. Augustine puts a similar notion forward in the Confessions, when he reflects on St. Ambrose’s inclination for silent reading (Book VIII). By hiding from “difficult questions” or even just synthesizing whatever he chooses to read, Ambrose does not enter into any crucible to test his knowledge. Therefore, it could be argued that he stunts his intellectual and emotional growth.

I can’t confidently advocate for a return to the exclusive oral tradition of antiquity, as I feel such a thought is far too ambitious and unrealistic. However, that does not mean we should just brush of vocal reading as a relic of the past or an occupation for children. If we wish to continue to strive towards a higher truth in this life, I feel that it falls on us with regards to how we utilize vocal reading to share our thoughts, even if it is just to ourselves in solitude. With that established, I still believe that our ideas are worth sharing, and that by vocalizing the words I read, I trust that I can attain a greater understanding of the knowledge I absorb, thus expanding my mind and allowing me to engage with my neighbors more thoughtfully. Maybe I could even inspire them to do the same.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, A Reading from Homer, 1885

Works Citied:

Augustine. Confessions. Circa 397 CE.

Borges, Jorge Luis. “On the Cult of Books.” 1951.

3 thoughts on “Reflections in/on Silence”

  1. Your response is the first to bring in pre-literacy and the intimacy between the parent who reads and the child who listens. You capture how cozy that intimacy is – one-on-one, often before bed, in hushed tones. The child is *secure* in the arms of the parent, who is capable of decoding these characters and turning them into verbal music and story. Later, with independence of learning to read, comes the possibility of in-security. Your post was also the first to comment on the fact that many of us feel embarrassment and even shame at the sound of our own voice. Silent reading, in that light, is avoidance (of shame, of the responsibility of independence). There is so much interesting thinking here.

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  2. I think it’s so interesting how reading aloud is almost stigmatized as childish when it can provide such a deep connection to the words–pronouncing them, hearing the sounds aloud, slowing our reading down enough that we have to pay attention to the meaning every single word conveys.
    I’ve often noticed that many children’s books are poetic, and maybe that is why they are so pleasant to read aloud. But as we get older, most of us read poetry less and less. Maybe that is why we lose our appreciation for reading aloud.

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  3. I like that you referred to having your mother read you stories as a child; I took a similar angle in my blog post. I agree with you that it seems like reading aloud is something just left for children. What scares me more is the fact that children are doing more independent reading on tablets or are just watching videos before bed, meaning that they are missing out on a great experience some of us were fortunate to have almost every night.

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