Silent reading must have seemed a strange practice when it first appeared. In a time when the written word was simply a substitute for the spoken (Borges 358), the art of reading silently, comprehending the meaning of written symbols without pronouncing their corresponding sounds, must have seemed as strange to the ancients as hearing a song in one’s head by scrutinizing the grooves on a vinyl record would seem to us today.
After reading a portion of Borges’ essay “On the Cult of Books” out loud and rereading it silently, I noticed I found it harder to comprehend the passage when I read it out loud. It felt as if in translating the written words into sounds my mind bypassed the assignment of definitions, images, and meanings. Whether this is a result of a simple lack of practice or a common neuromechanical pathway, I don’t know, but when I read something aloud, I often have to return and read it silently to grasp the content.
For me, reading silently enables the imagination in a way that the spoken word does not. Perhaps quietude fosters that deep, almost dissociative headspace where creative, nonlinear thought thrives, and this kind of thinking is where I find the meaning behind the words I read—not just definitions and connotations, but emotions, themes, and philosophies.
Perhaps that enhanced comprehension I notice in my silent reading flows from the “intent concentration” St. Ambrose exhibited when reading to himself. St. Augustine theorized that St. Ambrose read silently to “protect himself” from the questions of interested hearers, perhaps so that he might get through more books (Borges 359). In silence, reading takes on a sort of glorious selfishness; the reader is free to take in the words alone, comprehend them alone, and contemplate them alone, without the obligation to explain the content to anyone but oneself. Silent reading omits the responsibility of the teacher in preference of the patient thought, the gradual accumulation of understanding of the student.
So far, I’ve written about silent reading mostly from a personal perspective. For an examination of the broader social implications of silent reading in Western culture, I’ve included a link to the article “History of Reading: The Beginning of Silent Reading Changed Westerners’ Interior Life” (/https://qz.com/quartzy/1118580/the-beginning-of-silent-reading-was-also-the-beginning-of-an-interior-life/), which makes some interesting points about the relationship between the rise of silent reading and individualism.
In thinking of when books ought to be read aloud, I was reminded of a time I spent with a group of missionaries who were fascinated with the oral tradition of the Bible. Because many parts of the Bible were intended to be read aloud to groups of people, they organized small groups to read it out loud that they might experience, say, Paul’s letters, in a context truer to their original publication. Many reported that vocal rendition of the Bible was, in some undefinable way, a deeper one than that of reading to oneself. I suppose this applies to other sacred texts, too.
Poetry, too, because of its relationship with sound, can take on a new dimension when read aloud. Sometimes I find a certain word or line that feels good on my tongue. Saying it aloud feels as if it gives me a little bit of ownership of the words and, perhaps more importantly, the emotions and images behind them. In the case of poetry, then, too, reading aloud can broaden the experience.
I prefer to read silently almost always. But sometimes I find a line, a word, or thought that strikes a chord somewhere, and I can make it sound a little louder and a little clearer by repeating it out loud. Exactly which writings those are, those that seem to insist on being spoken, probably vary from person to person, from time to time, but because of this personal nature, I suppose any book is a good candidate for being read aloud.
Borges, Jorge Luis. “On the Cult of Books.” Selected Non-Fictions, translated by Esther Allen, Suzanne Jill Levine, and Eliot Weinberger, Penguin Group, 1999, pp 358-362.
Ha, Thu-Huong. “The Beginning of Silent Reading Changed Westerners’ Interior Life.” Quartz, 2017, qz.com/quartzy/1118580/the-beginning-of-silent-reading-was-also-the-beginning-of-an-interior-life/. Accessed 6 Sep. 2021.
4 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on the Practices of Reading Aloud and Silently”
As I read through your response, I found myself drawn towards your language choice and its seemingly natural connection to the idea of silent reading. I found it quite intriguing how you describe spoken text as more of a complex translation of written words into sounds, leading the mind to neglect the assignment of definitions, images, and meanings within the text. I have a similar perspective on silent reading, which is why I agree with your perception that we usually return to silent reading when something appears confusing to understand the text better. In addition, I believe we tend to do this because when we read silently, we have the unique capability to carry on multiple trains of thought at once. Whereas when we read aloud, our attention is directed towards one particular thing and therefore limited.
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Although I have stated that I couldn’t possibly choose which means of reading is ‘proper’, it’s refreshing to hear or read one’s reasoning behind their defense otherwise. For as little access as we have to another individual’s thoughts, environment, and perspective, it’s all the more important that we attempt to listen to each other. The typical reaction to confronting an opposing opinion is to translate it in their own perspective as a challenge to change their views. It may sound like a display of toxic pride, but just like listening to others’ outlooks, we must be willing to understand what distracts us from understanding each other.
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While reading aloud, I also found that my comprehension of the words I was reading was much more limited compared to when I read silently, as you note here. I often have to reread passages I’ve read aloud, as the process of vocalizing the words on the page ends up occupying more of my focus than understanding what they are saying. I agree, however, with your statement that there are some things that are more powerfully understood and internalized when reading aloud, speaking the words and allowing them to sink in. Though I, too, will continue to read silently, I am left to wonder if the cultural shift to silent reading has left us, in modern times, with a much more limited experience with reading, if our ancestors throughout history who told stories orally had a greater connection and greater power within the words they spoke.
What a rich and multidimensional post, Oli. I love your attentive personal reflections, and I really appreciate the bit of context you brought in with the linked article.
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