Recently I stumbled upon a scholarly controversy that I didn’t even know was a thing up to that point. Apparently some researchers doubt that people used to read silently before the middle ages. Several books and articles have been written on the subject.
There seem to be two arguments for this theory. The first is a quote by St. Augustine, in which he complains about visiting Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, and upon entering the room, Ambrose continued to silently read. St. Augustine makes much ado about this, and some interpret this as shock at such unusual behavior, i.e. reading silently. On the other hand, other scholars interpret this to mean that St. Augustine was shocked at Ambrose’s rudeness. I tend to agree with this interpretation, having taken the time to visit people myself, only to have them distracted by the television, the computer, the newspaper, texts, etc. It’s just plain rude to ignore a visitor. I suspect that is a timeless concept.
The other argument is that before the middle ages, the vast majority of texts were written in what’s called scriptura continua. In other words, there were no spaces between words. Talk about your compound words! Howwouldyouliketoreadanentirebookinthischallengingformat?
The argument here is that people did not read silently back then because with scriptura continua, it was impossible to do so. To this I say poppycock. Did you not just read that sentence above silently? I did. Yes, it’s a bit of a struggle. Yes, it’s slow going, but it can be done.
Another reason that I think people read silently is that I’ve read out loud to someone before, and it’s a pain in the behind. After a while, your mouth gets dry. And after that, your voice becomes strained and hoarse. And it takes effort not to reduce your reading to a boring monotone. It’s no fun to read aloud. These physiological truths would have been equally true in ancient times.
And monks, who were well known readers, sometimes took vows of silence. I don’t care how religious you are, doing nothing but your chores during times like those would have made it seem like an eternity. I bet they read, just as they wrote, silently. They were accustomed to listening to internal voices.
Also, we know that libraries existed as far back as 2600 BC. Can you imagine what an unwelcoming din there would be if people were sitting around in a library, each reading a different cuneiform tablet, aloud? Nonsense.
I’m convinced people have read silently for as long as writing has existed. On the other hand, did they read aloud more often than we do now? I’m convinced of that as well, for many reasons. But reading aloud because you want or need to is completely different than reading aloud because you’re incapable of reading silently, or because it has never occurred to you.
First of all, literacy was less common then than it is now. If you have a group of people wanting to hear the news or be entertained by a good story, and the vast majority of them can’t read, then, yes, someone read to them.
Second, books were relatively rare and expensive. Even if you have an entire household of avid readers, if there’s only one book to share between you, then, again, someone would have to do the reading, or else you had to wait your turn.
Third, lighting was at a premium. The average household was lucky to have a candle or two. So it stands to reason that one person might “hog” the light and read to others.
There is a related theory that reading alone in bed was considered highly controversial at one time. What were you reading? Erotica? Why else did you need to be lying down and alone to do it? What wicked, wicked thoughts were you having that they couldn’t be shared? Gasp! Scandalous!
Now that theory, I’ll buy. Freedom of thought goes hand in hand with reading, and such freedom always has been controversial. I bet you didn’t realize you were a revolutionary, did you?