Reading is a notion that has been around for centuries, even before the idea of ‘reading’ came to truly exist. Before reading and writing, people shared stories through word of mouth, an oral tradition that allowed for the stories to changing with time, to morph and shift slowly with each generation; with writing, we were able to keep the same narrative across time with few inconsistencies. When writing was introduced as a more novel concept, so too did the “strange art of silent reading”, a topic which Jorge Luis Borges tackles in his essay “On the Cult of Books” (1951). Although the act of reading is the same, be it in silence or aloud, the way in which an individual interprets or processes the information varies.
Reading silently allows for more time with your thoughts, to attain more information in a swifter manner, to go back and reread what you’ve just seen to create the best possible mental picture. In the quiet, you’re better able to focus on the whole rather than the part, to envision the ideas and images that the words present. St Augustine commented on a similar idea in Book IV of his Confessions, for when he discovered his friend to be reading silently, he wondered if it was “to protect himself in case he had a hearer interested and intent on the matter,” to keep his thoughts on the topic his own. Augustine’s friend had realized that ‘omitting the sound’ when reading allowed for him to focus on the concepts at hand, to not be bothered by those wishing to comment on what remained in his novel; he could learn the information in his own way, at his own pace, without fear of criticism or concern.
On the other hand, typically, when one reads aloud, it’s because the individual is attempting to make sense of what they’re reading, or to share the information on the page to another, like when a mother shares bedtime stories with their child. In that way, the reader is able to focus more on the words themselves, how they sound across their tongue, the way they crunch between their teeth; they can go slower with what they’re reading to ensure they have the right pronunciation and to be certain they’re grasping the concepts at hand. The work is more easily shared between friends or colleagues, and the act of reading aloud brings people back to their roots, to the days when storytelling through word of mouth was all they had.
There’s no right or wrong way to read, and the way in which one does is entirely up to him or her, for he or she is the one to decide what is best for them based on the circumstances. Reading as a whole has shifted greatly throughout the ages, from purely storytelling to the distribution of intellectual topics, but regardless of how or what one decides to read, the purpose will always remain the same: to share with others a new world of ideas they hadn’t previously laid witness to before.
Augustine, and Tobie Matthew. The Confessions of S. Augustine … Translated into English By S.T.M. I.e. Sir T. MATTHEW. the Second Edition. 1638.
Borges, Jorge Luis. “On the Cult of Books.” Selected Non-Fictions. Translated by Eliot Weinberger, Penguin, 2000, 358-363.
4 thoughts on “In Silence or Aloud: An Evolution of Reading”
I enjoyed your explanations of the reasons people read aloud and silently. You only touched on reading publicly briefly explaining the purpose is to share the content on the page. I do wonder how the experience changed from the perspective of the reader in this public forum. How much does the fear of public speaking interact with the reader’s performance in not only orally reciting what is on the page, but also comprehension? In what other ways does the practice affect the reader? Does the interaction change with the public setting like a classroom to a public reading event? How do the same conditions apply to those who are listening or simultaneously reading silently along?
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great questions, Nick!
Your ideas on reading aloud made me think about reading as a social activity. Reading aloud invites multiple people into a text at the same time, while silent reading is much more private. I think this is certainly an appeal of reading aloud. In a way, it’s a reminder of oral tradition and shared stories passed down from generation to generation.
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I completely agree that reading aloud and reading silently both have their benefits depending on how/why someone is reading. This mentions reading to children, but also others have mention stuff like theatrical plays/shows and such that are meant to be said aloud.
But also sometimes one wants to completely focus on their own book and think about it. Even, if for entertainment, entering into the book’s world without interruption.
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