TEXTS AND TRADITION
IN LATE ANTIQUITY
You are probably reading this book in the quiet of your own room or in a library, silently, to yourself. What we call “reading” is our looking at symbols (the alphabet in combinations) which, when arranged in certain orders, carry information through our eyes to our minds. We are trained in silent reading; when we were in primary school, our teacher probably made sure that we did not even move our lips when we read silently. “Reading” means for us that we are engaged in a private, visual experience. There are exceptions to this understanding of “reading”: we go to “poetry readings,” and we read a bedtime story to little children. In such cases, the words are spoken aloud to an audience, but this use of “reading” is truly an exception.
We therefore assume that this reading, this private, visual transmission of information, has always been the way humans have read and have written books. But our method of reading and writing, that is, our method of textual transmission, is a modem custom. It was not the standard of information transmission until the invention of the printing press at the end of fifteenth century C.E. Prior to the invention of a way to distribute the printed word in mass production, most reading and writing were oral experiences; even in the privacy of one’s own room, the custom was to read a book aloud. Books were written to be read aloud, as were letters and every other form of text.
The first record that we have in Western history of private, silent reading is from St. Augustine’s Confessions 6.3 (about 397–401 C.E.):
When [Ambrose] was reading, his eyes went over the pages and his heart looked
into the sense, but voice and tongue were resting. Often when we came to him
… we found him reading, always to himself and never otherwise.… [trans.
Rex Warner. Mentor, 1963]
What is notable about this quotation and its context is Augustine’s surprise at what was considered curious behavior on Ambrose’s part. A description of the common method of reading in the ancient world is in the canonical Acts of the Apostles (8:27–30):
And behold, an Ethiopian, a eunuch … had come to Jerusalem to worship
… he was reading the prophet Isaiah [while seated in his chariot] … So
Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet.… [RSV]