For the majority of human history, reading has been an oral tradition. The ancient Greeks read text aloud, so did European monks during the dark ages. Until recent centuries, reading was a luxury, reserved for those with status, with the opportunity to be literate.
What’s even more interesting, is that there’s a surprisingly fierce debate about what point in time European society made the jump from mostly reading out loud to mostly reading silently. Some scholars say ancient people read silently just as much as they read aloud, but one scene in St. Augustine’s Confessions leaves it up for interpretation.
But when Ambrose used to read, his eyes were drawn through the pages, while his heart searched for its meaning; however, his voice and tongue were quiet. Often when we were present—for anyone could approach him and it was not his habit that visitors be announced to him—we saw him reading in this fashion, silently and never otherwise.
Scholars have looked at this in a few different ways. Some say that it’s a remarkable moment for Augustine because silent reading wasn’t really a thing. Other scholars say the passage is meant to point out Ambrose’s rudeness, that he would continue reading silently even after company has entered the room. “Like someone going on texting while you’re trying to talk to them,” says D. Vance Smith, a medievalist in the Princeton English department.
“The default assumption in the classic period, if you were reading around other people, you’d read aloud and share it,” says Smith. “For us, the default is we’ll read silently and keep it to ourselves.” Either way, at some point in time, the status quo of reading in society shifted, and in the process created what scholars call the “interior life”.
Alberto Manguel wrote in his 1996 book, A History of Reading:
But with silent reading the reader was at last able to establish an unrestricted relationship with the book and the words. The words no longer needed to occupy the time required to pronounce them. They could exist in interior space, rushing on or barely begun, fully deciphered or only half-said, while the reader’s thoughts inspected them at leisure, drawing new notions from them, allowing comparisons from memory or from other books left open for simultaneous perusal. And the text itself, protected from outsiders by its covers, became the reader’s own possession, the reader’s intimate knowledge, whether in the busy scriptorium, the market-place or the home.
Historian Robert Darnton wrote, “For the common people in early modern Europe, reading was a social activity. It took place in workshops, barns, and taverns. It was almost always oral but not necessarily edifying.” This continued as late as the 1700s, but by the late 1800s, Marcel Proust’s narrators hoped for time to read and think alone in his bed. Reading privately had become routine for wealthy, educated people who could both afford books and the time to read them. This was in part due to the spread of literacy and newly diverse reading options. Until 1750, records show that people who could read only had a few books that they read and read again, likely the Bible, almanacs and devotionals. By 1800, people were reading newspapers and periodicals and by the end of the century children’s literature and novels.
At some point, reading alone became commonplace. Whenever it did, I’m glad it did, because for the love of me, I can’t pay attention when people read out loud to me.
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