Subversive reading

I’m loving Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading, and I’ll probably be posting about it quite a bit. If you love reading and love thinking about reading in a more theoretical and historical kind of way, you’ll love this book.

So we all know how reading can be subversive; Manguel talks about how totalitarian governments fear reading and readers. What intrigues me in the passage I’m now reading is the way he connects this subversion to silent reading, as opposed to reading out loud, which, back in much earlier times, was the norm. People would read everything out loud, usually to an audience or with a group of people also reading out loud (imagine the noise!). To describe this shift, he mentions the famous scene in St. Augustine’s Confessions where Augustine is amazed and puzzled at Ambrose’s silent reading. Reading that is done out loud is more subject to explanation and interpretation by someone else; it is more of a public act, more of a communal one: “Reading out loud with someone else in the room implied shared reading, deliberate or not,” Manguel says.

But silent reading allows more room for private thoughts:

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 … and the text itself, protected from outsiders by its covers, became the reader’s own possession, the reader’s intimate knowledge, whether in the busy scriptorium, the market-place or the home.

This, as you might imagine, made people nervous. Silent reading leads to idleness and day-dreaming – and to heresy:

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.


Until silent reading became the norm, Manguel says, heresies were usually individual and small-scale. Silent reading, however, made it possible for heresies to spread and become large movements.

Here’s to silent reading! Here’s to heresy!

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Filed under Books, Nonfiction, Reading

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