The Rest Is Silence

In Plain Words

In many Asian languages, the verb “to read” translates in two ways: one, signifying reading aloud; the other, reading in silence. In Chinese, for example, 读 means to read out loud, with the radical on the left-hand side, 讠, signaling an association with speech. On the other hand, 看 means to read in silence. It also means to look at, and the rectangle with two lines across it,目, means “eyes.” The distinction is somewhat fluid: 读 can often be used interchangeably to mean reading out loud and in silence, though 看 can never be used to indicate reading aloud. I don’t speak, read, or write Chinese very well; I never have. It was only in my mid-teens that I learned the difference between 读 and 看, when I had previously always used 读 (reading aloud) to signify “read.” I suppose my relatives must have thought I spent a lot of time reciting poetry and prose to myself.

It’s an understandable oversight: When we’re taught to read, we begin by reading aloud—logistically, I’m not sure how you could teach a child to read in silence—and our first attempts at transliterating lines and curves into words always begins with oral utterances. But our use of the same word—“read”—to signify both reading aloud and in silence perhaps obfuscates our awareness of the intrinsic difference between two very different activities.

According to some sources, silent reading is a modern invention—in the past, all reading was done aloud, and the passage in St. Augustine’s “Confessions” depicting St. Ambrose reading “with his voice silent and his tongue still” has become the iconic example of the genesis of silent reading. Almost all languages have their literary roots in an oral culture, and the wonders of poetry are often fully actualized only when pronounced trippingly on the tongue. But today, these are exceptions, and for the most part we do our reading soundlessly and privately.

It was not until I spoke to a friend who has a very difficult time reading that I realized what it is that I take for granted. For those unable to see, reading has to intrude upon other senses—either a machine or a human reads aloud to them, or they have to feel their way through braille letters. In both cases, the silence and stillness of reading becomes an impossibility, and the auditory or kinetic intrudes upon a process that we too often forget to appreciate. We are habituated to the tranquility of the reading process—the privacy and the simplicity of reading anything, anywhere, anytime—that we forget how wonderful it is.

It still amazes me that we can transform signs on a page into something that penetrates deep into the caverns of our mind, but I’m not here interested in Saussurean semiotics or the phenomenology of reading—rather simply the act of reading. The closest we get to re-kindling our initial sense of wonderment is by acquiring fluency in a new alphabet system, and all of a sudden, finding that previously unintelligible scripts have become familiar.

Reading is strange. Think about how you’re reading now, as you look over these words. Do you hear a voice reading the words out to you—and is it your voice, or someone else’s voice? Are you skimming over the article picking out only key words, only half-concentrating while the world continues around you? Are you distracted by other thoughts running simultaneously through your mind? How does your mind separate between the words you are reading and the words of your thoughts? And what did you do when you encountered the Chinese characters? How did they register in your mind’s eye? How do we look at words and internalize their meaning, often without consciously trying?

It is dangerous to be self-conscious about reading: two summers ago, I couldn’t read for more than five minutes without trying to catch the machinations of my unconscious, reading mind, which, of course, interrupted my natural way of reading. It’s the classic problem of the observer in quantum mechanics—and I eventually abandoned the attempt, recognizing that my consciousness could not capture the transcendent experience of reading.

But left alone in its pure form, reading is beautiful. It’s the interiorization of another’s mind that allows one’s own mind to expand. It’s the paradoxical escape from ‘real life’ that helps us cope with reality. It’s a suspension of one’s isolation in exchange for an embrace of solitude.

For years, I’ve been transfixed by the beauty of Virgil’s line “tacitae per amica silentia lunae,” which roughly translates to “through the friendly silence of the soundless moon.” I’m not sure why I like it so much—perhaps because of the cadence, the assonance, the syntactical chiasmus, perhaps because W. B. Yeats uses it in the title of his book, but perhaps most of all,because of what it evokes: illuminated by words, a visual image of perfect silence.

—Columnist Yi Jean Chow can be reached at yjchow@fas.harvard.edu.

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