Quote: on the evolution of reading

Here, I am reminded not of the recent past but of a huge change that occurred in the middle-ages when humans transformed their cognitive lives by learning to read silently. Originally, people could only read books by reading each page out loud. Monks would whisper, of course, but the dedicated reading by so many in an enclosed space must have been an highly distracting affair. It was St Aquinas who amazed his fellow believers by demonstrating that without pronouncing words he could retain the information he found on the page. At the time, his skill was seen as a miracle, but gradually human readers learned to read by keeping things inside and not saying the words they were reading out loud. From this simple adjustment, seemingly miraculous at the time, a great transformation of the human mind took place, and so began the age of intense private study so familiar to us now; whose universities where ideas could turn silently in large minds.

Dr. Barry Smith, University of London, while discussing Edge Magazine’s 2009 question, What will change everything?

Edit: a commenter has suggested it was actually St. Ambrose, not St. Aquinas, who first broke this ground.

5 thoughts on “Quote: on the evolution of reading

  1. That is so interesting. I've never heard about that before. Thanks for the Edge link too – I didn't know about their annual question thing. The list of contributors is basically a list of my biggest heroes.

  2. Thanks! Yeah the Edge yearly question is great– I just bookmark where I'm at and read a few whenever I'm in the mood for some stimulation. Which reminds me I'd better finish 2009 soon…

  3. Actually, it was St Ambrose (4th century) who surprised St Augustine by reading silently. Not St Thomas Aquinas (13th century).

    And the 4th century is not "the middle-ages". Nor does educated usage refer to "St Aquinas".

    And, while St Augustine was intrigued/surprised/amazed, he was not so credulous that he saw this "as a miracle".

    That sort of credulity is more often found in 21st century scholars who comment on scholars from earlier eras.

  4. "But while reading, his eyes glanced over the pages, and his heart searched out the sense, but his voice and tongue were silent".

    St Augustine, Confessions, Book 6, chapter 3

    BTW, Ambrose was a senior public official and later became a bishop. He was a popular speaker and exercised considerable authority in Italy.

    “According to a fifth-century mosaic, Ambrose was a small, cleverlooking man with big ears and a neat black beard …”

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