Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Reading Silently

Philip Harvey
This cutting fell from a recent book donation to the Library. I found the tiny rectangle of paper on the floor after sorting, so its bookish whereabouts of the past twenty years could not be traced. The scrupulous academic recorded, in biro, that the letter is from The Times Literary Supplement, February 1991. Like you, I silently read this little note, wondering what to make of it.

The Ambrose story fills a space in our knowledge of Reading. Simply because it is there so palpably in Augustine it has become one of those before-and-after moments. It is serious evidence about Reading practice in the ancient world. Much has been written about Augustine's account.

Anyone in our world finds it nigh impossible to believe that Ambrose's behaviour was exceptional. Did no one skulk off to their enclosed garden to read the latest Cicero in rapt silence? Was all reading done aloud of long manuscripts? It seems incredible in a world of absorbed commuter train carriages, august hushed libraries, and a little bedtime reading.

The story reveals more about what we don't know than what we do know about Antiquity. Although Augustine reveres his teacher, and uses the story to bolster his glowing pen portrait of Ambrose, it seems that it is only later readers of the Confessions who have concluded that this is the first recorded instance of anyone doing such a thing as reading silently.  

Vocalised reading was a norm of ancient societies, to judge by how often we receive reports. Even Jesus of Nazareth reads aloud in the synagogue, because that is what a scroll is for. Recital of the written word was common, and if you were fortunate you had a slave to do that for you.

When pundits say that Ambrose invented silent reading, all we have to go on is the fact that he was one important person who undoubtedly had skills in that area. It seems to me that this is an example of where a single outstanding piece of evidence has taken on mythic meaning for later generations.

We also have to ponder the value placed increasingly on keeping silence at this time. The introduction of monastic ideals like solitude and silence were finding their way across the Empire. To sit silently at Scripture would have been a developing exercise. One has to consider that Augustine is describing a man found at lectio divina, in a state of silent contemplation of the words.

Meanwhile, everywhere today we read silently at our screens everything from tweet to note to report to article. If we are literate, that is.

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