When Reading Went Silent

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Clare Barnett

Staff Writer

Clare Barnett lives in Richmond, Virginia, with her husband and daughter. She delves into all genres but has a soft spot for fantasy, mystery, and memoir. When she’s not working her way through her to-read list, she’s reading and writing about bookish things. Twitter: @clarebar. Inquiries:

Reading has a reputation as the quintessential quiet activity. Picture reading and you might think of hushed libraries and shushing librarians or a cozy afternoon whiled away in silence on the couch with a good novel and perhaps a purring cat on your lap. There are even silent reading parties where guests BYOB (bring your own book) and sit in companionable quiet. A bookish introvert’s dream! Yet, despite reading’s association with quiet individual immersion, it has a loud, communal history. In fact, for millennia, reading was something only done out loud.  Here’s a quick primer on how reading went silent. 

Reading’s Noisy Origins

While the written word has been around for millennia, the way humans engaged with it has transformed in the last few centuries. Thousands of years after writing was invented, very few people were literate. By necessity, reading was a communal, social activity. Those able to decipher the markings, first on stone, then scroll, would read out loud to the group. In A History of Reading, author Alberto Manguel describes how, from 500 BC to the Middle Ages, writers assumed that text would be heard, rather than simply seen. Words were written as one continuous string of text, without spaces or punctuation. Given that everyone was reading aloud, Manguel wondered:

“If reading out loud was the norm from the beginnings of the written word, what was it like to read in the great ancient libraries? The Assyrian scholar consulting one of the thirty thousand tablets in the library of King Ashurbanipal in the seventh century BC, the unfurlers of scrolls at the libraries of Alexandria and Pergamum, Augustine himself looking for a certain text in the libraries of Carthage and Rome, must have worked in the midst of a rumbling din.”

Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading

In her fascinating  video “How slow reading can change your brain,” Dami Lee cites the 4th century text Confessions for clues that reading silently was still highly unusual. St. Augustine writes of a fellow reader:

“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.”

St. Augustine’s Confessions

That St. Augustine, no slouch in the reading department himself, feels the need to call out Ambrose’s silent reading suggests it was unusual — remarkable even — that the man did not voice his words. 

Reading Quiets Down

Dami Lee explains that the invention of punctuation in the 12th century was a game changer. Spaces between words, periods, and capitalization, made it easier to read and process text silently.

With the invention of the printing press, more people had access to books, and literacy rose. More people could access books, and the words they contained, without having to listen to text read aloud. Still, until the 17th century, social reading was the norm. A Quartz article by Thu-Huong Ha quotes historian Robert Darnton: “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.” It was hard to dive deep into a text while people were shouting over their pints. The immersive, solitary experience of reading was still inaccessible for most people.

The Quiet Reader: A Dangerous Proposition 

By the 18th and 19th centuries, the practice of silent reading became widespread. We may not think of reading silently  as a subversive act, but many historians recognize it as the key to rising individualism and private thought. Now, within the privacy of the printed page, silent reading allowed people to engage with written texts on their own terms, without the influence of an oral interpretation. Ha notes that this private act alarmed some: “Silent reading by the late 19th century was so popular that people worried that women in particular, reading alone in bed, were prone to sexy, dangerous thoughts.”

Reading silently made books more introspective by providing a private dialogue between author and reader that encouraged independent thought and questioned social norms. Thanks to increasing literacy, text drew more readers into new worlds that began on the page and took root in the imagination. As modern history attests, this kind of silent reading has in fact fueled many revolutionaries, visionaries, and changemakers who later tested their bookish ideas in social spaces. 

The Enduring Benefits of Reading Aloud

While reading silently is the norm today, there are still benefits to reading aloud like our ancestors did. According to the BBC, researchers found people consistently remember words and texts better if they read them aloud than if they read them silently. When reading aloud, the brain is forced to process the text in a different way, as it is processing both the visual and auditory information, which can help to improve understanding and retention. These patterns may stem from the way humanity learned to interact with the written word first as listeners.

Additionally, reading aloud can be a great way to bond with others, whether it’s reading to children, sharing a book with a friend, or joining a reading group. And let’s not forget the pleasure of audiobooks, which remind us of the value in voicing stories. 

In short, the practice of silent reading is far newer than reading aloud. What was once a social, communal activity led by a few became the engine of individuality once punctuation and the printed word became common.

For more on how reading and listening work together, check out The Neuroscience of Audiobooks.