Saint Augustine, merely a disciple back then, was disturbed to a degree when he saw Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan. The Bishop’s eyes were moving along the page and across the words scattered upon it, yet his mouth remained shut.
Over a decade after witnessing the sight, Augustine was still as confused as ever.
Saint Ambrose’s actions would’ve possibly horrified Clement of Alexandria, as he firmly believed spoken-word and verbal communication was superior over that of words written to a page.
Of course, after living in today’s world — where there’s words sent through texts, emails, posters, and so many other forms of media — one could only wonder why Clement felt this way. Why would he be against the sharing of ideas through pen and paper if it meant carrying his ideas further along? If it meant writing sentiments to a loved one? If it meant advancing education through textbooks and passing history to the next generation?
Perhaps Clement’s fears and dislike are rooted in the accurate prediction that using one’s mind to concentrate will do one of two things: 1) a writer’s idea(s) will get lost as a reader attempts to make it their own, or 2) there’s a lack of connection and understanding between the reader and the writing.
When one opens a text message they have difficulty understanding, they will often mumble it to themselves, trying to crack a code that’s hidden. Oftentimes, students will complain they had difficulty understanding a problem or a block of text until they hear it read aloud for the first time.
As time wore on and people began writing things for the sake of entertainment and not a guide on how to live better, Clement’s predictions became true with people taking the time to read on their own schedule.
However, it became very popular — especially among small presses with the space for it — to hold readings of almost any genre. We still have plays because even if it were performed on a bare stage, it’s more enjoyable for a play to be read than it is to sit and attempting to imagine all these things at once.
Perhaps Clement had the right to fear for what oral reading has become, or the lack thereof. But there could have been an even bigger greivance aired if it weren’t for silent reading: the lack of classic literature and poems that would’ve been tossed aside simply because we began reading and writing in our heads too late.
Plus, Saint Ambrose seemed to have made a fine name for himself, despite these shortcomings.
Borges, Jorge Luis. “On the Cult of Books.” Selected Non-Fictions. Translated by Eliot Weinberger, Penguin, 2000, 358-363.