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November 24, 2014

I recently saw someone reading with his lips. I mention this not to report a rare sighting but to comment on the frequency and utility of reading this way.

We were certainly discouraged from moving our lips after some young age. Also, we were warned not to trace one’s finger along the line of text. It all hinted at insufficiency.

There can be great efficiency in reading silently, and certainly speed-reading requires it, but the text can run by like scenery in a train window and become entirely forgettable.

I have read aloud to myself from instruction manuals, as if voicing the words would make them comprehensible. Maybe it was a comfort, as if I were talking to a companion who could help.

I found it necessary in the ‘80s with manuals for Japanese lab equipment: “Pick screw into main control item without damage.” It didn’t really help to speak, but it was a reflex.

I think it would be very hard to memorize a poem without speaking it. A poem must be written into your experience—vibrations, cadences, pitch, the feel of words. Speaking a poem can make the meaning clear and even change it from what you thought you knew.

People often whisper prayers—perhaps giving voice to them makes them real, something more than a passing idea. And indeed, I often have an apparently brilliant idea that gives the impression of genius while silent in my mind, but try to explain it or write it down and I discover how vague and insufficient it is.

In that regard, a voiced prayer takes both effort and exposure: “Lord, please ignore the suffering of their opponents and help the Broncos to win, but not by more than 13½ points, and please take into account my fantasy football team.” Maybe some would remain unembarrassed by that.

I know people who speak the words as they type, and people who work out arguments aloud. It can be a very conscious choice to speak, but it can also be unconscious, such as in moments of ecstasy: “Say Hallelujah!”

Could the silence of interior monologues be largely cultural? Plenty of people lose track of their inhibition, leaking thoughts by muttering in the garden. Have you ever quickened your pace on the trail re-mumbling an argument that might have gone better? This hints that voicing the thoughts might be the natural thing and silence not.

There must be something different between the understanding had through silent speed-reading and that obtained from the spoken word. People can listen to the audiobook of a work they would never have the patience to read. What is remembered changes, too.

So, reading comprehension is of concern to teachers, but perhaps narrative comprehension is equally important. A narrative can be experienced in various ways. It’s the baseline mode of our thoughts, waking or dreaming.

Reading has proven important to modern civilization because it is repeatable and efficient. Maybe modern audio and video will prove as useful now that the technology exists for Everyman to send a video from his phone.

Think of what you know that can’t be voiced but rather exists in your mind as images, sounds, smells, sensations, and emotions—or rather, memories of the experience of them. Models of them.

What can you really say about your Thanksgiving dinner? We mostly point to it by naming: turkey, stuffing, gravy. Tofu. But we can voice our thanks. Or show it. Best wishes as the holidays begin.


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One Comment
  1. There’s a lot of truth to the utility in coming out of silence in reading, and understanding. Like your reading the inscrutable tech manuals out loud to see if they were more comprehensible that way; or doing that in general for a slower, more precise, reading of something for understanding. Kinda like writing it out, only spoken. And sometimes it is just for increasing the enjoyment of things in lit or poetry–Borges saying something to the effect that poetry *must* be read out loud. Purposeful reading.

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