The deep space of digital reading


Paul La Farge writes: In A History of Reading, the Canadian novelist and essayist Alberto Manguel describes a remarkable transformation of human consciousness, which took place around the 10th century A.D.: the advent of silent reading. Human beings have been reading for thousands of years, but in antiquity, the normal thing was to read aloud. When Augustine (the future St. Augustine) went to see his teacher, Ambrose, in Milan, in 384 A.D., he was stunned to see him looking at a book and not saying anything. With the advent of silent reading, Manguel writes,

… the reader was at last able to establish an unrestricted relationship with the book and the words. The words no longer needed to occupy the time required to pronounce them. They could exist in interior space, rushing on or barely begun, fully deciphered or only half-said, while the reader’s thoughts inspected them at leisure, drawing new notions from them, allowing comparisons from memory or from other books left open for simultaneous perusal.

To read silently is to free your mind to reflect, to remember, to question and compare. The cognitive scientist Maryanne Wolf calls this freedom “the secret gift of time to think”: When the reading brain becomes able to process written symbols automatically, the thinking brain, the I, has time to go beyond those symbols, to develop itself and the culture in which it lives.

A thousand years later, critics fear that digital technology has put this gift in peril. The Internet’s flood of information, together with the distractions of social media, threaten to overwhelm the interior space of reading, stranding us in what the journalist Nicholas Carr has called “the shallows,” a frenzied flitting from one fact to the next. In Carr’s view, the “endless, mesmerizing buzz” of the Internet imperils our very being: “One of the greatest dangers we face,” he writes, “as we automate the work of our minds, as we cede control over the flow of our thoughts and memories to a powerful electronic system, is … a slow erosion of our humanness and our humanity.”

There’s no question that digital technology presents challenges to the reading brain, but, seen from a historical perspective, these look like differences of degree, rather than of kind. To the extent that digital reading represents something new, its potential cuts both ways. Done badly (which is to say, done cynically), the Internet reduces us to mindless clickers, racing numbly to the bottom of a bottomless feed; but done well, it has the potential to expand and augment the very contemplative space that we have prized in ourselves ever since we learned to read without moving our lips. [Continue reading…]

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2 thoughts on “The deep space of digital reading

  1. Syd

    The idea that the ancients could not read silently is apparently a myth, and Manguel is not credible.

    “…I consulted Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading … Manguel believes that the passage in Augustine is “the first definite instance [of silent reading] recorded in western literature”. He is well aware of the evidence to the contrary, but he finds it unconvincing. Thus Manguel: “According to Plutarch, Alexander the Great read letter from his mother in silence in the fourth century BC, to the bewilderment of his soldiers.” [My italics.] But these bewildered soldiers are Manguel’s importation. They have been brought into the story in order to make it seem exceptional. Manguel shamelessly fudges the argument…”

  2. Paul Woodward

    It seems to me that there might be several shades to this story. Even if Manguel is constructing a dramatic flourish to his argument by portraying silent reading as a discovery, it might well be the case that in antiquity, reading aloud was the rule and reading silently the exception — thus the exceptions would be noteworthy and merit being referenced in a text. Moreover, I think he might be onto something in suggesting that at some point there was a historical shift in which the reader acquired a more dynamic relationship with the text.

    A lot of ancient texts were written in chantable form and the rhythmical form of the text is largely lost if they are read in silence. The metric form and the physical text serve as a kind of “backup file” because the words are meant to be imprinted in memory.

    I studied for a number of years in an oral tradition where this method was central and the memorization involved the practitioners reading out loud.

    Text that gets treated in this way is invested with unshakable authority and thus it’s not the business of the reader to re-write it in his or her head.

    Even now, I would say that the power of the written word is such that people have a tendency to believe what they see in print — thus the bountiful exchange of “facts” that get circulated around the interwebs which so rarely carry with them the citation of a solid source.

    Myths, on the other hand, are worth reflecting on without applying a simple binary test: true or false.

    To engage the world on the basis of the things one wants to knock down seems like a rather miserable way of living.

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