Monday, May 16, 2011

On "Silent Reading and the Birth of the Narrator" by Elspeth Jajdelska **

Manguelo's A History of Reading claimed that silent reading became common in the tenth century. It was an off-the-cuff remark, not very heavily explored, and I suspect he pulled that information from another text. Jajdelska, by contrast, says the switch happened around 1700. But that's is not to say that the two actually disagree. Indeed, silent reading may have been downright strange before the tenth century, but it may not have become more common than reading aloud until the end of the seventeenth. There was, one might say, a tipping point that took centuries to complete. We could, for example, make the same case for reading electronically versus reading in print; there is a revolution taking place, one that began decades ago, that has sped up with the growing use of e-readers, and that may one day become the more common form for reading booklength works. What will that mean for reading, for writing, for the way we conceive of the word?

Jajdelska is exploring a similar theme at a time when printing--and access to printed books--was becoming more commonplace, moving from the domain of the few and educated to the common person. Before the 1700s, most readers had access to very few books. A family might own a handful--or just one, namely, the Bible. As books became more common, more people read privately. Whereas before, people read in groups. Someone read a text at a gathering, to you, to the friends beside you. Now, you can read it to yourself.

Along with this comes a tendency to no longer memorize texts. If one has only a single book and that book is to be presented orally to an audience, then one is likely over time to learn the book by heart as one recites it. This means that things like punctuation aren't as important, since it's the reader who will help the listener know exactly what the author was saying. Likewise, with more access to books, children learn to read in different ways than previously--and also read books specifically geared toward them. The first children's books begin to be published about this time. And the idea of reading for leisure, rather than for moral improvement, also begins to gain ground.

What does all this entail for readers and for the people who write for them? It means that reading moves from being a public act to being a private one, and it means that the reader is no longer a speaker but a hearer. In line with that, texts begin to change shape as well.

Jajdelska sees this different shape, in part, taking place in the punctuation that is used in texts. Jajdelska uses writings from two specific authors to make most of the book's points. This allows for close readings of texts, though, as with all literary criticism, it opens the work up to the potential of arguing something that might apply only to these authors and not to others. (Indeed, the choice of a professional--Addison--and an amateur could set up a discussion also of simply good versus bad writing.) This problem is obfuscated a little by sundry discussions of other writers in brief.

With punctuation, the essential difference is that end punctuation (periods) begins to take greater use than simply commas. The idea is that readers as speakers don't want to pause too long lest someone jump in and interrupt, whereas if one is reading on the page (listening), then one need not worry about long pauses. In fact, such signalling helps a silent reader to "hear" what a speaker would do.

Other discussions involve differences in letter writing (the idea that one writes to an individual, intimately, versus the idea that one writes for the public, as seen in differences of, say, greetings one uses) and in diary keeping (a move toward private diaries meant for no one else versus diaries intended for moral guidance to others; a move from diaries that observe the self to diaries that explore it).

Finally, Jajdelska closes with a discussion of time and place and form of narration before and after the move to silent reading. Some of the arguments I found hard to follow or not wholly convincing--rapid switches in time and/or place supposedly are conducive to reader as speaker but not as hearer--but some of the examples are also telling. One, in particular, that I found really interesting was from an expository book of advice in which the narrator leaves off providing advice to upper-class women to make an aside to those women's maids, as if the two might be in the same room listening: in this case, certainly this is reading not intended for a single audience member (just you and me) but for a crowd.

On the whole, the book provides some interesting ideas to think about, especially as the novel began to take more of the literary center. And I can't help but think about what our current shift in technology may mean for writing in this century.

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