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Silent Reading Doesn't Exist

In the wake of disaster, a writer listens to the voice in his head

H. Armstrong Roberts / Getty

Just as Laurence Sterne’s white page invites the reader to pause, to take refuge from the narrator’s words in what might seem an eddy of silence, doesn’t every space on a page of writing offer an exit, or even an escape, from the author’s voice? But we do not seek refuge in silence when we stop reading; we simply mute the nattering voice that interrupts our own babbling consciousness, or, more generously perhaps, we resolve the duet of two contending voices into our own aria that can scale heights without interruption by, for example, the garrulous Mr. Shandy.

Or by me. Surely the reader has lifted his or her eyes from the pages just read in this very book to consider with no little skepticism the judgments I have asserted about the representation of silence. Is reading a silent debate, then, one that we enter and from which we constantly withdraw to consider the author’s argument and our conclusions about its validity?

But not all reading is this kind of duel, a dialogue of thrust and parry. Swept along by a compelling narrative and well-crafted sentences, who has not been lost in another’s consciousness only to be startled back into the moment by a ringing phone or some other interruption? And actually wasn’t the reading itself the interruption, at least of our own sense of self, and the knock at the door the slap that awakened us from a kind of dream?

Like walkie-talkies that require a button be pressed to speak and released to hear, does reading require that either the voice of the author or the voice of the reader’s consciousness be silenced at any given moment? Such an analogy suggests that reading is an act of hospitality toward another’s mind, in which we silence our voice in courtesy to the voice of another’s consciousness, a voice that alternates with our own in conversation.

But what happens when circumstances demand the complete attention of one’s consciousness? Won’t the ink on the page remain mute stains unless the reader has the breath to plump them into words and the attention to reinvigorate the thoughts those silent letters preserve? To read, must consciousness be at its leisure to admit the voice of another? Or put another way, will a preoccupied mind refuse to be silenced long enough to read? And so is reading at least an intermittent silencing of the self, a silence intolerable when that self is under threat?

It is said that with the onset of a serious illness the first thing to be lost is the capacity to read. I learned the truth of that insight ten years ago, not from sickness but from homelessness. Having fled the approach of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, my family and I took refuge in my brother’s house in Dallas, expecting to return to New Orleans a day or two later. The storm, with recorded winds in the city under 100 miles per hour and, thus, only a strong category one hurricane, did not destroy New Orleans that August Monday morning. But in its wake, defective levees designed and built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers collapsed and flooded 80 percent of the city, an area seven times the size of Manhattan, with saltwater up to fourteen feet deep.

By that Thursday, we were coming to understand we could not return home anytime soon. My sister, also living in the Dallas area, brought us to a film, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, to take our minds off the still unfolding catastrophe. As the comedy unspooled in the darkened auditorium, I began to feel as if I couldn’t breathe. That night, I told my wife what had happened. She was shocked—because she had experienced the same sense of suffocation. In fact, she told me, she almost had had to leave the theater in the middle of the film.

It had nothing to do with the movie we tried to watch that night; I still have no idea what its plot is. But the experience of engaging imaginatively with the story on the screen was nearly unendurable. In the following weeks, while we waited for martial law to be lifted and the army to allow us to return to our destroyed home, we learned that reading had become just as difficult as watching that film.

We eventually recovered the ability to read and watch films, but only to a limited degree. Before the levee collapse, we would often catch three movies in a single weekend, but even now, ten years later, it’s an unusual week when we watch a film. And I still find it impossible to lose myself in a book as I once could.

If I bring up this lasting effect among other New Orleanians who survived the flood and its aftermath, many will admit the same disability—and usually they are relieved to learn that someone else can’t read anymore.

I think what happened to us, what can happen to someone seriously ill, is related to the silencing of the self that reading requires. Confronting an array of problems that occur to the victim of disaster or disease only little by little—do I still have a job, what am I going to do for money, will my insurance cover what I’m facing, will my marriage survive this, how is my life going to change—one holds on tightly to the self. One doesn’t dare let go.

But reading (or watching a film) requires yielding consciousness to someone else. The inventory of worries that preoccupy one who is struggling to reimagine his or her life can’t be put aside, even in sleep. New Orleanians will confess how, in the days following the levee collapse, they would awaken at two or three in the morning, suddenly realizing, for example, that they couldn’t access their money because their bank and its computers were underwater. I can confirm from personal experience that one doesn’t fall back asleep after such an awakening. One lies wide awake in the dark, eyes open, waiting for dawn, trying not to disturb the person next to you in bed, who probably is awake, too, and lying still in hopes one of you, at least, might sleep through the night.

So I couldn’t read. My ability to write, though, was undiminished by the psychological trauma of seeing my hometown destroyed. Returning to the city five weeks after the levee collapses, our house uninhabitable, we slept in a daycare center without hot water, where—seated on a twelve-inch-high blue plastic chair with my portable computer resting on a barely taller red plastic table—I wrote fifteen columns for The New York Times.

Undistracted by circumstances, I composed column after column, one of which noted the loss of my personal library and a few examples of the 2,500 books ruined by the water that flooded our house. Readers from around the country began to send me copies of the particular titles I had mentioned as well as their own favorite books: the collected poems of Elizabeth Bishop, a gilt-edged copy of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays, Robert Fagles’s translation of The Odyssey. Lovely, heartfelt gifts, but I wasn’t able to read them.

If my experience guides, reading is, essentially, a fitful silencing of the self, at least when the self is able to accept silence. But such a formulation necessarily throws into doubt the possibility of truly silent reading, which we take as a form of solitude. Just as we hesitate to interrupt someone at prayer, we excuse ourselves when distracting an individual from silent reading as if intruding upon privacy. But reading is no more solitary than a telephone conversation, and even this notion that reading is a silent or private act is relatively modern.

Early in his Confessions, Augustine notes the habit of Ambrose, his teacher, to read silently. Unusual enough in his day for Augustine to spend a paragraph describing and then justifying the practice, he guesses that by so doing, Ambrose wraps himself in a silence his students dare not pierce with questions. Though he goes on to other justifications, such as getting through books more quickly and preserving the voice from hoarseness, in the end Augustine must admit he doesn’t know the motive but trusts his teacher has a good reason for doing it.

Augustine’s account suggests that reading in antiquity was most commonly a communal activity fostering debate among its listeners. In universities today, so persistent is the influence of this practice that classes are called lectures (whose etymology derives from the Latin legere, “to read,” and its past participle, lectus), and many academic conferences are still structured around the reading aloud of papers. Even more pronounced a tradition in religious communities, most liturgies include readings of scripture to the congregation, and some monasteries continue to furnish their refectories with a lectern for readings during meals.

Roger Chartier traces the emergence of silent reading from medieval copyists to university scholars around the time of the founding of the University of Paris in the middle of the twelfth century. He notes that silent reading had become the norm for educated readers by the fifteenth century but even four hundred years later, La Cagnotte, Eugène Marin Labiche’s 1864 comedy, mocks a farmer for reading a private letter aloud; the bumpkin retorts that he can’t understand what he reads unless he hears it.

The familial functions of reading aloud are still recognizable, of course, whether it is Samuel Pepys’s reading to his wife three nights before Christmas 1667 to distract her from a toothache, or young Jem’s reading to Mrs. Dubose as the old woman struggles to overcome her morphine addiction in To Kill a Mockingbird, or the old man’s reading of The Princess Bride to his sick grandson. Clara Claiborne Park recalls in a 1980 essay on the nature of memory that her mother read to her sisters while they sewed and that the father of a college friend read a chapter of Dickens to his family every night at dinner. But the habit of reading aloud to others, except in the home to our youngest children, has faded throughout my lifetime.

For the most part, reading aloud, at least for adults, has ceased to be communal, but there are a few exceptions. Despite the spread of literacy and the elimination of the need for public readings of governmental notices, for example, vestiges of the practice survive in corners of our society. Audio books, a term that would have been a redundancy in earlier times, have a wide contemporary audience, and reading tablets such as the iPad and the Kindle offer a feature that allows the device to read the text aloud when one’s eyes have grown weary. Most American fiction writers, and nearly all poets, make more money reading their work to audiences of fans than from the publication of that same work. Some of the popularity of literary readings must be ascribed to the contemporary cult of celebrity—if “celebrity” can be used without guffaws in a description of novelists and poets in the twenty-first century. But a sense of shared interest unites the readers of a particular writer when they gather to hear the work aloud, and one does come away from such a performance with a clearer sense of the rhythm of the author’s words. Park reminds us in her essay that, as Moses Hadas has pointed out, for the Greeks literature was “something to be listened to in public rather than scanned silently in private.” Literary readings honor that tradition.

But do we actually scan the written word silently? Recent neurological research questions whether silent reading actually is silent. Evidence grows that the brain interprets “silent” reading as an auditory phenomenon. In “Silent Reading of Direct versus Indirect Speech Activates Voice-selective Areas in the Auditory Cortex,” published in The Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience in 2011, Bo Yao and his colleagues reported: “Overall, our results lend objective empirical support to the intuitive experience of an ‘inner voice’ during silent reading of written text, particularly during silent reading of direct speech statements.”

The following year, Marcela Perrone-Bertolotti et al., in “How Silent Is Silent Reading? Intracerebral Evidence for Top-Down Activation of Temporal Voice Areas during Reading” in The Journal of Neuroscience, explained: “As you might experience it while reading this sentence, silent reading often involves an imagery speech component: we can hear our own ‘inner voice’ pronouncing words mentally. Recent functional magnetic resonance imaging studies have associated that component with increased metabolic activity in the auditory cortex, including voice-selective areas.”

The authors went on to announce experimental confirmation of Yao’s findings that “reading spontaneously elicits auditory processing in the absence of any auditory stimulation.” Using “direct electrophysiological recordings from the auditory cortex to show that silent reading activates voice-selective regions of the auditory cortex,” they concluded that “written words produce a vivid auditory experience almost effortlessly” and readers “produce inner voice even when reading narrative with no identified speaker.” But the authors cautioned that “sustained inner voice activation is not an automatic process occurring systematically in response to any written word. It is clearly enhanced when participants read attentively (to understand and memorize sentences) and minimized when words are not processed attentively.”

When we read rather than merely skim a text, the experience is processed as auditory. Silent reading is not silent to the brain—or to most of us. Perrone-Bertolotti notes, rather offhandedly in the article’s introduction, that “few would contest that most of our waking time is spent talking to ourselves covertly.” But a 2010 article by Julie Cross in The Daily Mail reported on the case of a fifty-year-old dyslexic builder living in Stoke-on-Trent who was amazed to learn that his wife heard a voice in her head when she read silently: “I have never heard a voice in my head—ever. I was so shocked I nearly fell off my chair.” He went on to explain: “It all seemed so alien to me. I have the reading age of a five-year-old so I never read. If I dream, I have visual dreams. They are always totally silent.” He says the impact on his life has been enormous. “I now understand my actions a lot more. I follow my emotions because I don’t have a voice in my head analysing what I’m about to say or do.”

Professor Rod Nicolson at the University of Sheffield is pursuing a link between dyslexia and the absence of inner speech. “Everyone assumes everyone else is the same. However, we have found not everyone has an inner voice and in those who don't, literacy levels are often poor. But we have also found a lot of children with dyslexia who have well-developed inner speech.” Dr. Kate Saunders, of the British Dyslexia Association, says, according to the article, that “30 to 50 per cent of those with dyslexia also have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, a medical condition affecting how well someone can sit still and focus. It is believed that many of those with ADHD may also lack an inner voice.”

Inheritance, as well, may play a role: the dyslexic builder has two adult children, both with dyslexia and no internal speech. So, though there are clearly a number of factors at play in dyslexia, not only is silent reading a misnomer—silence may actually be an impediment to reading.

Excerpted from Silence by John Biguenet, part of the Object Lessons series from Bloomsbury Publishing Inc. Copyright © John Biguenet, 2015. All rights reserved.