Lost Learning (4)

On monasteries, book technology, solitude, and literary revolution.

Etching by Charles Emile Jacque, 1847. From the New York Public Library.

4. Silent Reading Finds a Voice

We seldom recognize liberty of attention as a fundamental human achievement — as something that wasn’t always available to be taken for granted. Nor do we appreciate what a remarkable cultural artifact the inner life is. That it is an artifact can be discovered by delving into the history of reading, especially in the period just after the close of the first millennium of the Common Era.

To establish some context, let’s start by going back even further. At the Marseilles monastery established by John Cassian in the early fifth century, the founder’s works, based on scripture and the experiences of the Desert Fathers, were read aloud constantly at supper. Such tuning of the ear to the word of God and its echoes was called lectio divina (divine reading); it provided a storehouse of matter for meditation. Four centuries later, as we read in Michel Rouche’s essay, “The Early Middle Ages in the West,” in A History of Private Life [see Note 1], the Benedictine rule — adopted by all monasteries throughout the Carolingian Empire in AD 817 — “required each monk to chant or recite all the psalms every week.” Lectio, divine as it was, was still vocal and aural; the inwardness it fostered resounded with oracular echoes.

Yet, Rouche informs us, Saint Benedict himself was instrumental in encouraging private reading, setting aside for it in the monkish regimen “two hours every morning from Easter to the first of November, and three hours in winter.” Still, “Reading was almost always out loud, since in those days the texts had no punctuation and words were not separated.” The solitude of silent reading had yet to be discovered.

. . . authors were transformed from tellers of tales to creators of texts, auditors were transmuted into silent readers, and thought filled the vacuum left by quieted voices.

Three centuries later, Hugh of St. Victor’s Didascalicon, an early encyclopedia and guide to the art of reading, anticipated the leap from monastic texts (designed for oral, collective recitation) to scholastic works (texts organized for soundless, contemplative, individual study). The springboard for the shift, Ivan Illich asserts in In the Vineyard of the Text, his fascinating study of Hugh’s treatise, was a series of technical innovations — improved punctuation, indentation, titles and headings, chapters, indexes — that enabled and encouraged a new treatment of words on a page. As a result, authors were transformed from tellers of tales to creators of texts, auditors were transmuted into silent readers, and thought filled the vacuum left by quieted voices. Apprehension was exchanged for comprehension, inquiry for oracle. All that would grow from the bookish life followed.

While the imperative “Know thyself!” echoes all the way back to Plato and beyond, the alertness summoned by the exhortation is largely outward-facing, focused on measuring one’s proper place in the world, and before the gods especially. It might equally well be translated “Watch thyself!,” with all the connotations of “watch” in tow. Illich identifies a new kind of awareness developing in the period he scrutinizes through his study of the changing nature of texts: “That which we mean today, when, in ordinary conversation, we speak of the ‘self’ or the ‘individual’,” he writes, “is one of the great discoveries of the twelfth century. Neither in the Greek nor in the Roman conceptual constellation was there a place into which it could be fitted.” Whether what Illich identifies as a “discovery” is wholly new, or rather a descendent — a mutation, even — of earlier ideas of the soul, he is right to place it at the foundation of the age of the book; for not only does reading, as he notes, presuppose private space and the recognition of the right to periods of silence, but the medium of the book creates and shapes a mental space that did not exist in quite the same way before. Within this space is a field for ordering reality according to the reader’s lights and intuitions, a personal reality distinct from, albeit in conversation with, the world outside.

This inward movement of attention is one of the great migrations in the history of the West — through gateways of pages, opening into chambers of reflection, learning, and wonder that might prove independent of the volumes’ contents. Inwardness revealed its own rich territory of pondering that stretched beyond prayer, and solitude slowly unfolded into the rich tradition we’ve come to know as humanism. The humanities were cultivated in this space that reading created, and with them the ideal of civility that we prize and, these days, mourn. (“Training in the humanities” is the first meaning assigned to “civility” in Merriam-Webster; not for nothing is it labeled “archaic.”) Hidden dimensions of experience and emotion found their voice, first empathizing with ancient eloquence in the renaissance of classical learning and then imagining unexplored worlds of expression and scrutiny, novel ways of knowing.

For the new kind of reading that was fostered by the technical improvements Illich identifies would abet, eventually, the composition of literary works that in turn conjured new resources — tools for the mining of the imaginative space reading had created. The most magical period of that conjuring occurred in a few decades falling on both sides of the year 1600, when three towering figures — the French essayist, Montaigne, the English playwright Shakespeare, and the Spanish novelist Cervantes — shaped in language the modern mind and the culture it would inhabit. That these three were alive and writing at the same time is one of the wonders of history, and coincidence of an especially telling sort. With their works, they expanded literary language into a dimension that would become as essential to our lives as time and space, a dimension in which we could search for meaning, and learn to make it. Through essay, dramatic verse, and fiction, this trio engendered and gave shape to what we have come to take for granted as the landscape of contemplation and action, informing not only our conception of human nature, but of human potential — the maturation and significance of our lives — as well.

Indeed, the literary revolution Montaigne, Shakespeare, and Cervantes fomented, one might argue, was every bit as influential in nourishing the historical courses of Enlightenment and democracy as the Scientific Revolution to which credit generally devolves, and just as dependent upon the development and promulgation of method. The invention of large parts of that literary method, as useful an application of intelligence as its scientific counterpart (and maybe even more so), can be traced back to these three seminal writers. In different ways, each brought to a head the force of vernacular language set free by the decline and fall of the Latin empire, inventing forms that would evolve, naturally and inventively, on the pages of subsequent generations of writers. With all three, writing was an inquiry rather than a memorial, and even today their works retain a kind of provisionality that interacts with the personal perspective readers bring to it at any given point in time; they are more like organisms made of words than immutable texts — or, dare one say it, like software intuitively responsive to user interaction. (Reading Montaigne’s On Experience at nineteen is substantively different from reading it at fifty-nine, and you can do your own math on King Lear; Don Quixote’s delusions, it goes without saying, become more sympathetically poignant the older we get.) It’s hard to imagine artificial intelligence more revelatory than that embodied in the words of these master artificers.


[Note 1] Rouche’s essay is in From Pagan Rome to Byzantium, the first of the five volumes that constitute A History of Private Life, a magnificent resource prepared under the general editorship of Philippe Ariès and Georges Duby.


This is the fourth installment of a work in progress. Earlier posts in the series: first, second, third.


Portions of the above appeared in different form in The Still Small Hours, an essay on the paintings of Ellen Wiener (text copyright © 2007 by James Mustich), and in my book 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die (copyright © 2018 by James Mustich; published by Workman Publishing).