Often times, when I am alone in my room, curled under warm blankets, or sprawled out on the floor, I read aloud to myself. Not loudly or elegantly, but softly and carefully, releasing the words into the air and liberating the story from the pages. So, when I read a page of “On the Cult of Books” out loud and then silently it seemed like a familiar enough experience to me, until I realized something about this particular exercise felt different.
I had never listened to silence.
In that moment, reading had suddenly become an experience replete with intentionality. The experience of the text absorbed in silence was a completely different experience when I read the words out loud. I had never quite noticed how different the voice in my head is from my actual voice, but suddenly the differences were clear. The vocalization in my head was more fluid, easier to contain yet harder to grasp. As I read, the words slowly seeped into my mind, as if my brain were a sponge. On the contrary, when I read out loud, the vocalization of my voice was less fluid, as easy to grasp as sand. But, I had to work harder to contain the words – a sponge cannot easily hold on to sand.
My relationship to the text when read silently was far more intimate, the words enshrined in my mind. Whereas my relationship to the text when read out loud, though still meaningful, put a distance between me and the words. I think this intimacy that silent reading brings may be why St. Augustine found St. Ambrose’s habit of reading silently to himself so strange and significant. Augustine recognizes that Ambrose’s habit protects Ambrose from having to debate or discuss ideas with others, but does not mention the idea that Ambrose is in fact discussing the text internally, debating it within himself and silently allowing the words to teach him. Perhaps silent reading is sacred because it is captivating yet confidential. In reading silently, it seems Ambrose did not seek to impress others or boast of his knowledge, but simply enter into a private relationship with the text.
Does this mean that reading should always be a private experience? I don’t think so. Although silent reading can be a great way to immerse ourselves into the text, it can also be isolating. Reading out loud may put some distance between the reader and the text, but it forms bonds between the reader and others, or in this case, those listening. This reader/audience relationship creates dialogue and possibly even debates, which in turn, keeps the text alive.
Although listening to the silence taught me that the quiet sometimes has more to say than we realize, I think that, like all things in life, how we read demands balance and this balance must be discerned. As readers, writers, and listeners we must decide when it is best to keep a sacred silence and when it is best to declare and loudly express.
Borges, Jorge Luis. “On the Cult of Books.” 1951.