Silence is something that I find I cannot live without. It allows my mind to decompress, my imagination to run wild, and brings my thoughts to order. Jorge Luis Borges’ essay “On the Cult of Books” points out this idea of silence through discussing the transition from oral storytelling to silent reading in a way that transforms the concept of the book.
As I am one for silence, reading a page of the essay out loud felt strange and foreign. I noticed that I was so focused on the pronunciation of the words and the formations of my mouth that I forgot to comprehend the actual meanings. I found that I actually had to go over each passage a few times until my mind became distant and unattached from my voice. Only then was it that I was able to engage with the meaning of the text. When I read the same page silently, I was able to dive deeper into the text without the distraction of my voice. I felt my mind engage with the text in a way that reading out loud did not allow, and in this way, the silent words had a much greater impact than the spoken ones.
Borges mentions a passage from Book IV of St. Augustine’s “Confessions” which details his shock at St. Ambrose’s silent reading. Just as Ambrose might have read silently to “protect himself,” I feel that my preference of silent reading stems from a similar idea. The silence protects me from distraction, from stumbling over words, or from being caught up in phonetics.
While silent reading is the most common way to engage a text, oral tradition still has a strong presence in modern society. Stories such as Bible readings, accounts from older family members, or poetry are best heard aloud. Oral tradition is an important part of the storytelling experience, as it has the ability to add to the richness of the piece. Regardless of silent versus spoken reading, words and stories will always hold an important place in the culture of the world.
Borges, Jorge Luis. “On the Cult of Books.” Selected Non-Fictions. Translated by Eliot Weinberger, Penguin, 2000, 358-363.