On Reading Silent, Reading Aloud

Yesterday’s  Editorial Observer column of the New York Times carried an interesting and through-provoking piece by Verlyn Klinkenborg on “Some Thoughts on the Lost Art of Reading Aloud.”  In it Klinkenborg compares the growing popularity of audio books with the practice of reading aloud as was common in the 19th century (and obviously long before that). He points out that reading was a social activity, and compares it unfavorably to the isolated “readers” taking in books through the ear buds of an iPod.  He further points out that by relying on professional readers to experience a book read aloud, an opportunity is lost similar to that of never making our own music but letting recorded professionals do all the work (and, I would add, have most of the fun). The focus strays from the text to the performance:

When people talk about the books they’ve heard, they’re often talking about the quality of the readers, who are usually professional. The way we listen to books has been de-socialized, stripped of context, which has the solitary virtue of being extremely convenient.

Now perhaps this is a quibble, but I will disagree with Prof. Klinkenborg that the art of reading aloud has fallen on hard times. While the audio book is not perfect, it does demand a level of attention from the listener. Further, there is a small but growing resurgence in the practice of reading aloud. This is an excellent opportunity to plug a wonderful organization, Librivox.org, who have made it their mission to make all public domain books available as free audio books.  These dedicated volunteers have created and made available many thousands of such books. In the spirit of full disclosure I have made a few recording for librivox (most recently I am in the process of finishing a recording of Ben Jonson’s The Forest) and hope to do more in the future. Klinkenborg argues, rightly, that to read a book aloud is to demonstrate the degree to which one understands the text.  Reading aloud demands interpretation and comprises its own implicit commentary. Our language retains traces of the practice of reading aloud; consider that a review of a company’s books is still called an “audit”.

But all that being said, I am not sure that the private experience of silent reading is to be dismissed.  Silent reading was considered unusual in the past.  This passage from Augustine’s Confessions describes the reading habits of St. Ambrose, whom Augustine visited in  Milan:

“When he read his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.”

This is the first known direct reference in  western literature to reading silently, although there are a number of classical sources that infer that silent reading was not unknown in earlier times.  It is also well-known by people who study such things that many of the plays written in ancient Rome were meant to be read, but not performed theatrically as such.  One might assume that such plays could be and often were read and enjoyed in silence.  A wonderful discussion of silent readers throughout history is in Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading (New York; Viking, 1996), particularly Chapter Two, “Silent Readers”. Manguel also points out that by the Tenth Century, reading silently was known in the west.  Even though reading aloud was still the norm, silent reading was not quite the anomaly that Klinkenborg implies.

One reason why reading aloud is not as common as it once was is that little of what is now written is composed with a live reading in mind.  Even though authors frequently read parts of their books for publicity’s sake, I seldom get the sense that the words were designed from the ground up to be read out loud.  One exception, of course, is poetry, and Klinkenborg also notes this.  Poetry, I submit, is still understood generally as something that is spoken or recited. That said, he laments that reading aloud may be on the way out:

You can easily make the argument that reading silently is an economic artifact, a sign of a new prosperity beginning in the early 19th century and a new cheapness in books. The same argument applies to listening to books on your iPhone. But what I would suggest is that our idea of reading is incomplete, impoverished, unless we are also taking the time to read aloud.

Again, I disagree. It is not just the mass production of books and literature per se. Walter Benjamin famously pointed out that the mass reproduction of art invariably wrenches that art from its original context. The reading literature of today is not written to be read out loud.  To insist that it must be is to ask it to do what it was not meant for.

For my part, I welcome audio books.  Reading silently puts you on very intimate terms with the text.  Your relationship with the book,  Manguel points out, is unrestricted.  You have the freedom in your own mind to engage the author, to savor a book, or dismiss it, play God to it.  Manguel summarizes:

A book that can be read privately, reflected upon as the eye unravels the sense of the words, is no longer subject to immediate clarification or guidance, condemnation or censorship by a listener. Silent reading allows unwitnessed communication between the book and the reader, and the singular “refreshing of the mind”, in Augustine’s happy phrase.

Reading, silently or aloud, is a way of thinking. To that end I cannot complain when I see people reading through their ears or their eyes, in silent solitude or in boisterous groups. My own experience tells me that reading good writing is its own reward, and those works such as the great poets, playwrights, and others who asked listeners to lend their ears, will continue to find audience.


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