Saenger Shifts to Silence

I know that, last week, I told you that I’m not big on article reviews. That hasn’t changed but, I mean, come on – how can one resist after reading such good pieces? I’m not taking any book history courses this semester so I’ve been getting my fix by reading some old assigned readings. How did I miss all the juicy bits the first time around?

This post deals with Paul Saenger‘s “Silent Reading: Its Impact on Late Medieval Script and Society,” published in the Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies in 1982. You’re probably wishing that this is the last review I do. I can’t make any promises.

Readers have not always read silently. Until the late Middle Ages, writers assumed that readers would speak their texts, much as they spoke their own texts aloud as they wrote them. So how did modern readers come to read silently? In “Silent Reading: Its Impact On Late Medieval Script and Society,” Paul Saenger argues that the shift from oral to silent reading was not – as was hypothesized by Marshall McLuhan and as is widely believed – a consequence of the printing press. Rather, he argues that silent reading developed from a long evolution of reforms from the twelfth to the fifteenth century. Some of these reforms included: the introduction of reference aids (particularly by Christians); the introduction of spacing between words; the development of a more rigorous intellectual life and, subsequently, private study; the development of gothic cursive; the development of a professional book trade; and the increased availability of vernacular literature. There was not just one factor that led to silent reading. There were many.

Saenger presents compelling evidence to support his argument. He cites historical evidence for each of the reforms that led to silent reading, all from before the mid-fifteenth century when Gutenberg invented his printing press. Further, Saenger recognizes the evolution of silent reading as two-way; readers influenced reading practices and vice versa. While this two-way influence makes the article slightly confusing, it is commendable that Saenger does not oversimplify. He calls attention to detail. Readers can better understand the complexity of the shift as a result.

Another example of Saenger’s recognition of complexity is his emphasis on the shift from oral to silent reading as gradual. He discusses the hybridity of culture during the shift, stating that “public lectures continued to play an important role in medieval university life. In fact, the technique of visual reading was essential for the comprehension of public lectures.” This passage illustrates both the perceived benefit of silent reading as well as the continued appreciation of oral reading. Silent reading did not displace oral reading; the oral was, and still is, used to supplement the silent. Saenger presents this clearly, without sacrificing recognition of complexity for brevity.

However, it is such presentation of complexity that elicits critique. Saenger’s work is comprehensive. He spends pages describing medieval oral culture for context, and addresses even minor factors in the shift to silent reading. For these reasons his article lacks, at times, focused direction. This could be remedied through the use of subheadings, which would guide readers through the argument by dividing the text into distinctive segments. Readability of the article would be enhanced and the length of the article would be less daunting.

Another point of critique is that Saenger makes no attempt to mask his bias that silent reading is a good thing. Indeed, silent reading “emboldened the reader, because it placed the source of his curiosity completely under his personal control,” thereby fostering individual critical thought. However, silent reading has not always been regarded as good. Saenger briefly mentions the Church’s concern that silent reading and its consequent critical thought could generate heresy. However, he follows this point by presenting the Church’s more positive beliefs that silent reading could induce spiritual experiences and promote discipline. No more criticisms of silence are presented, although there are undoubtedly other reasons that silence was not supported. For such a comprehensive article, it is dissatisfying that Saenger does not provide a more balanced presentation of the different attitudes surrounding the shift.

Nevertheless, Saenger’s analysis of the effects of silent reading resonates. For example, he claims that “private [silent] reading stimulated a [Renaissance] revival of the antique genre of erotic art.” That is, decreased censorship resulting from silent reading may have given Renaissance readers the ability to read erotic texts privately. A similar, more recent, notion is that private reading facilitated by e-book readers may have contributed to the recent success of E.L. James’ erotic Fifty Shades of Grey series. Like the new practice of silent reading gave Renaissance readers the privacy to enjoy erotic texts, the new technology of e-book readers gives contemporary readers further privacy to enjoy “forbidden” and uncensored texts even in public settings. Hence, the increased privacy engendered by silent reading and, more recently, e-book readers, can facilitate cultural movements. As Saenger illustrates, understanding changes in reading practices can help researchers better understand larger cultural phenomena, and this is as true for today as it is for the Middle Ages.

Saenger’s work is useful for any reader who wishes to understand the shift from oral to silent reading. Its complexity, while sometimes digressive, gives readers a comprehensive account of the numerous factors that incited the shift. Further, Saenger’s analysis has continued relevance: silent reading benefits contemporary readers in similar ways that it benefitted Renaissance readers. Thus, while it is not without faults, Saenger’s article presents a compelling argument that presents an alternative explanation for the shift to silent reading.

If you want to delve deeper into the history of silent reading, Saenger wrote a pretty comprehensive book on the topic.

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