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.
4 thoughts on “Silence and Sound”
After reading the excerpt from Book VI of St. Augustine’s Confessions out loud, and then in my head, I can affirm that I am stoutly against the idea of conditioning words to be only written or spoken. Both provide a different, yet important and impactful experience. Reading silently gave the impression of contributing to the preservation of the ancient lessons by taking the time to learn them myself, while reading out loud made me feel important, as if I was living in the moment these lessons were conceived. We should (and thankfully do) have the freedom to use our absorption of the content and our interpretation of the voice to keep the works of the past alive. The fact that the declarations by philosophers against the idea of the written word are recorded for us to read, and the criteria of this assignment proves that it should not only be one way or the other. Even when it comes to a personal opinion, for me, it would depend on my current frame of mind.
I’m completely the same way when it comes to reading! The only times I’ll really ever read aloud are when I don’t understand what I’m reading or I’m trying to sound out a word I haven’t seen before (or I’m attempting to share a piece of the work with a friend). If I want to form a picture in my head, I have to be able to read in silence, or else it’s impossible to come up with any of the visual aspects. Sometimes reading in silence can be the best part of any day!
I totally understand what you mean about reading something allowed and it feels “weird”. It feels almost foreign or taboo sometimes, depending on the material. Who told us to think this, and why? Seriously when did we decide we have to read in silence rather than be allowed to read out loud? Who are we disturbing with our reading? I don’t have the answers to any of these questions and I don’t expect you to either, I’m just on my soap box (again). I find I agree with the need for silence, but some days I have to have that background sound of music or a tv show, but some days I have to work in a sound vacuum…..but I almost can never predict what each day is gonna bring.
I totally agree that reading aloud feels foreign and distracting; I’m so accustomed to reading silently, that reading aloud forces me to think more about speaking than understanding. Reading aloud feels wrong, in a way, especially if done alone. Nobody is there to listen, so why would I read aloud? Though I wonder about living in a time where oral tradition was much more prevalent, and the effect on storytelling that reading aloud had, I cannot say I’m not grateful for a cultural shift to reading silently.