Thoughts on the Elements of Silent Reading

The term “Writer’s Voice”, in my experience, is passed around quite liberally in discussions of literature and writing, as there is an implied assumption of what it contributes to the conversation. On some level I agree that’s necessary; the common concept behind that assumption is simple to grasp. Even in the acts of transcription or translation, the human behind the pen or keyboard influences which (if any) spelling errors are made, or what words and phrases one keeps in one’s head are reflective of the words that one hears from another language. The writer of a text, in my opinion, will never be capable of true universal objectivity in their voice because that writer’s person is the one performing the action.

However, as Jorge Luis Borges states in his essay, “On the Cult of Books”, “a book does not select its readers,” and written word inherently exists, at least partially, passively. A world-experienced writer can contribute himself to the creation of text, but that text cannot contribute to universality without a human to channel it through to that. Just as a writer, too, puts themselves into the composition of text, the orator of a text will contribute their own unique characteristics (the feeling and texture unique to that person’s voice, their ability to fluently read that text without mistakes, the amount of energy that is evident in their speech) in the recital of that text.

“Saint Ambrose” by Fransisco Goya, taken from

Saint Augustine, in Book VI of Confessions, describes his mentor, Saint Ambrose, as willingly isolated while reading, wondering if his silent reading was “perhaps to protect himself in case he had a hearer interested,” Reading the text silently, the quote could potentially come across as critical of Ambrose, as Augustine lists the possibilities for communication and mutual learning that could come from interjections of listeners. Equally as likely, though, is the implication of admiration, as Augustine later states Ambrose “had a good reason for what he did.” Whether intentional or not, the ambiguity is an element of the text, an element that does not change, short of post-compositional editing. Read that quote aloud, though, and the ambiguity that is an element of the text is removed, as the reader’s voice will exemplify both characteristics of the person reading it and the qualities of the text that the reader (consciously or not) took from the original text and introduced into their own reading of.

So, is there an element of certain texts that benefits silent reading as opposed to doing so vocally? Context would say so. Books are not, in and of themselves, performative; one cannot do anything reading silently but absorb. By reading aloud, we now introduce the factors of active observation and demonstrated interpretation. Some texts benefit from those factors, but, as Borges suggests in his essay, the written word contains a sacred permanence outside of human contact, which can be a genuine good.

John Rogan

Works Cited:

Augustine. Confessions. 397.

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

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Elements of Silent Reading”

  1. This is a well thought-out article! I particularly enjoyed your point that no author can be wholly objective; some aspect of their perspective will always bleed through the masked words. Like you pointed out, when we read aloud, we can “preform” the work and give each word the inflection and character that we’d expect to have been intended. We try to sound out what the author was thinking when he wrote. When we’re quietly reading, we lose the dramatic, memorable qualities, instead relying solely on absorbing the ideas. There are definitely some stories that would benefit from becoming vocalized, but I agree with you (and Borges) that there is a type of sacredness about the silence that is important to maintain. Libraries have that sacred feel to them, as do even the bustling bookstores in cities. I think it’s the quiet voices of each author calling to us from the pages, encouraging us to pick up their volume and open the cover to engage in a conversation with them that no one else can hear unless the have the same book open before them.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You seem to be wrestling with the concept of individual “voice”: when we read, how, and to what degree, can we hear the writer’s “voice,” and to what degree do we we lend/blend in our own. “Voice” in writing – you are right – is a metaphor; what we call “voice” really boils down to subtle points of the writer’s style. When we read, we add our own voice, our own intonation/interpretation, to this “silent” (stylistic) voice. Is the “voice” in our heads less intrusive than the voice that we speak with our mouths?
    I would add one thing, to your last point: written text – and poetry in particular – can be performative. It can use the space of the page, the typography, etc., to “perform” or direct the reading of what it says.


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