17 February 2007


James Carroll has been thinking about “silent reading in public life.” It's a big deal.
In the ancient world, texts were read aloud, not silently.
But then something happened. At a certain point humans began to read silently and in privacy. Vocalization and memorization gave way to quiet reflection. “Silence!” became the librarian's command. Soon, that silence was enshrined in the spaces and punctuation marks that made each single reader the master-decoder of written language. A revolution occurred not only in the way texts were regarded, but in the way consciousness was formed.

The scholar Brian Stock points to the most famous example of this shift: One day, as reported in The Confessions, the young Augustine noticed that his mentor, Ambrose, was reading a book without moving his lips. “We saw him reading silently, and never otherwise.” What Augustine saw in Ambrose was an instance of pure interiority, reading as entry into a contemplative world. Augustine here embraced the philosophical ideal that would define him from then on—inner life as absolute. His conversion followed.

Where before, Augustine had regarded the Bible as the word of God, now he understood that the text of Scripture does not become the word until it enters the believer's consciousness. This marked a move away from authoritarian literalism to the imaginative autonomy of the intelligent reader. Here is the most important implication of reading as a wholly interior act: To perceive is to interpret. Truth has no meaning apart from its meaning in the reader's mind. Silent reading is thus both the sign of and a means to self-awareness, with the knower taking responsibility for what is known.

This inescapable individualism is the bedrock principle of democracy, a form of social organization that became possible only when contemplative reading was widely enabled by the mass production of the printing press, and the popular education that followed. With every person able to read in the mode of Ambrose, the genius of Ambrose could belong to all. But democracy assumes the protection of the values that contemplative reading makes possible—the self-awareness of citizens, their privacy, their capacity for willed interiority.

He goes on to wonder about meaning of the flickering screen full of text. Though anyone reading me now is conscious of the difference between reading paper and reading a screen, the difference is not so radical as all that—and displays will only get more and more like paper as their resolution improves.

On the other hand, we are now seeing the democratization of video, and ubiquitous web publishing. When all of us are authors of texts and films that anyone else can see, what kind of people do we become?

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