Silent Study

Painting by Jean-Baptiste August Leloir of Homer telling a story

I can’t remember the exact last time I read out loud outside of a class. All my reading is done in silence and completely alone so that I can avoid distraction. On top of that, any reading that I have done recently tends to only contain required reading for classwork with little to no time on reading for personal enrichment or entertainment.

I think the last time I read out loud may have been when I was a camp counselor and the kids wanted me to read to them from the books I carried with me to read alone in my down time. I’d gather the group and read them whatever I had, usually a Harry Potter book. If for some reason I wasn’t carrying a book that day, I would create a story for them on the spot.

Now, having read Borges’ article aloud and silently to myself, it’s easy for me to understand the difference in the way I relate to the text. When I read to myself, the text is just words on a page. Sure, I can derive meaning from Borges’ words and gain a more complex understanding of his topic, but something is lost in the silence. When the words are read aloud, the text becomes more personal. Yes, the words are not mine, but in the moment, I am the “storyteller.” The words don’t just exist on paper anymore but are spoken into a new sense of reality. It’s the same with my readings of Harry Potter at day camp. The world of the novel doesn’t change if I’m reading silently to myself, nor does the plot, but when the story is read out loud, it gains a new reality, a sense that this story was something meant to be passed along in spoken existence.

In Borges’ article, he includes a quote from St. Augustine in which he talks about his teacher, Ambrose and his silent reading habits. Augustine says, “we wondered if [Ambrose] read silently perhaps to protect himself in case he had a hearer interested and intent on the matter, to whom he might have to expound the text being read if it contained difficulties…If his time were used up in that way, he would get through fewer books than he wished…Whatever motive he had for his habit, this man had a good reason for what he did” (St. Augustine. “Book VI.” Confessions.) Augustine assumes that Ambrose has good reason for silence in his studies but writes later that he was still troubled by the thought of a man reading silently to himself.

For modern readers, silent reading is often the only kind of reading we partake in, but for readers like Augustine, silent reading was unusual. So why did we choose to shift from the oral storytelling of our ancestors to silent reading by ourselves? I assume we choose silence because silence is more convenient and less work, but in silence we lose some of the impact of written work. Written words for our ancestors were meant to be shared with one another in a communal setting. Stories were the glue that held civilizations together and helped to separate us from animals. Cavemen shared their stories aloud, aided by painted pictures inside their caves, the ancient Greeks used theater to tell their legends and myths, minstrels sang ballads for the courts of medieval kings. Today, we get many of our stories in silence, and the extent of the meaning and impact is lost on us.

2 thoughts on “Silent Study”

  1. I like the idea of text as something searching for embodiment, which you imply: “When I read to myself, the text is just words on a page. Sure, I can derive meaning from Borges’ words and gain a more complex understanding of his topic, but something is lost in the silence.” When you read out loud, the text lifts off the page, begins to “reside” in your mouth. In this same way, they would pass from storyteller to storyteller.

    You ask, “So why did we choose to shift from the oral storytelling of our ancestors to silent reading by ourselves? I assume we choose silence because silence is more convenient and less work, but in silence we lose some of the impact of written work.” Silent reading rose with rates of literacy…see the link that Chanel shared. I hadn’t thought of the “work” aspect, but actually, there is something to it. When we read out loud, we labor over every word. We can’t quickly skim and skip over things. Our lungs and mouth have to work and MAKE something of their own, MAKE a particular combination of sounds. It is labor in both the sense of work and creative birth.

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  2. I like that you note how frequent silent reading has become for you as a college student and how there is sort of a disappointing feeling that comes along with not being able to share non-course-related stories with others aloud. I remember reading over thirty books during the summer before my senior year of high school, and how I bonded with friends over those books. I am now haunted by the fact that I have not even read one full novel just for fun since I began college. I definitely agree that the meaning of a story can be lost with silent approaches, but your text made me realize how there is something greater at jeopardy – and that is the enjoyment of reading altogether in some cases without this vital sharing element made easier through freedom of selection and of personal time.

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