I remember reading in St. Augustine’s Confessions how he was astounded to see a man sitting before a book, his eyes roving back and forth across the printed page, and yet without uttering a sound. Could he be…reading? The very idea was shocking.
I laughed at first, struck to think that reading silently was once an anomaly whereas now it is the norm. Now, it is reading aloud that is awkward, stilted and arhythmic, whereas once the eb and flow of language was once more natural to our tongue than to our eyes.
What if we never learned to read silently?
My bookish heart ached at the thought. To never to enjoy a book in total privacy? Never fall into the beautiful stillness only punctuated by the gentle rustle of a page turn? To endure the sound of my voice butchering the words of far better writers?
Another part of me, though, was intrigued by the thought. After all, what are we generally reading? Tweets? Facebook rants? Hashtags? Roadside advertisements, nutrition facts, junk mail. Think, too, of the many things that we read but are ashamed, the things that we consume because we can do so without detection. Poetry without meter, pretty sayings devoid of depth, pornographic novels…the list goes on and on. We feed our minds upon anything and everything because we can do so constantly and secretly.
I imagine two alternate paths for society had we never learned to read silently: In one, the nonexistence of silent reading creates a deep sensitivity to literary consumption. In the other, the crescendo of noise matches the increase in readily available information. One becomes a library of hushed, studious, and intentional tones and the other a cacophony of a million different voices, each seeking to be the loudest.
If reading aloud were a necessity, we would either become so cautious with the written word that we would read only that which is worth sharing or be so bombarded by vulgar noise that we would be forced to reconsider the ceaseless rivers of text that pass through our eyes to our minds and out again. Either way, the absence of silent reading might, counterintuitively, have generated a quieter life.