Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Monday, December 05, 2005

Reading Like Saint Ambrose


[gary daily col. 11 April 7, 2002]

“Saint Ambrose passed directly from the written symbol to intuition, omitting sound; the strange art he initiated, the art of silent reading, would lead to marvelous consequences.” --Jorge Luis Borges

Are we becoming listeners to books rather than readers of books? Does it make any difference how we ingest our diet of print?

Personally I’m not sanguine about the books on tape boom. And it is a boom. Besides being available in the obvious outlets, you can find them for sale or rent in the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain (right next to the rag dolls and chocolate covered cucumber slices), on racks in gas stations on lonely Utah roads, the ones whose back lots open onto empty high desert mesas, and, in the truest measure of books on tape availability, stacked on tables at yard sales (right next to rag dolls and empty chocolate-covered cucumber jars).

My feelings in regard to this books on tape stuff come in two temperatures-- lukewarm and tepid. Is it reading, or is it hearing reading? Tapes aren’t books–can there really be “books” on tape?

Damning confession: I personally have never listened to an entire recorded book. I guess I’m afraid of missing the chance to really read a really good book; and I have no inclination in the least to listen to a book that’s not really good. What’s a reader to do?

I have listened to the smooth-voiced “Radio Reader” on National Public Radio outlets. He never stumbles over any of the words. He also never stops to look up words I don’t know in a dictionary. And I have yet to hear him re-read passages which are especially elusive in meaning or eloquent in style. When he reads something I find interesting, I probably break two or three traffic laws trying to write it down on the dashboard while making a turn onto Third Street.

If you miss that turn, just continue west to Los Angeles. And while in L. A., I recommend you take a day, or at least an afternoon, to visit the J. Paul Getty Museum. The Getty houses magnificent art collections representing cultures and nations across time. It is especially strong in rare medieval illuminated manuscripts. The Getty Center itself is an architectural masterpiece.

This bit of travelogue serves to note those illuminated manuscripts and gets us back to the subject of listening to and reading books.

I had the pleasure of visiting the Getty last month and view an exhibit titled, “Artful Reading.” To quote from the exhibit catalog, “Medieval Christianity was a ‘religion of the book.’ The very image of a book could serve as a powerful visual symbol of the divine.” In a large, protectively lighted gallery, I had the privilege of seeing some of these precious manuscripts, all opened to pages with exquisite pictures of saints and nobility reading or being read to.

It’s the being read to element that caught my eye and curiosity. It turns out that in the Middle Ages, according to Alberto Manguel in his marvelous “A History of Reading,” silent reading was uncommon. The evidence for this is not unassailable, but Manguel and the brochure for the Getty exhibit both make reference to the surprised Saint Augustine (354-430 A.D.) commenting in his “Confessions” on Saint Ambrose’s reading style: “his eyes scanning the page . . . his voice silent and his tongue still.”

Medieval students listened to masters read aloud, the Latin being lectio, from which the word lecture derives. And, the helpful Getty brochure also informs me, “a ‘published’ book,” in those times, “was one that had been read aloud.” I’m no saint (and most likely, neither are you), but most of us read like Saint Ambrose--at least until books on tape came along. Is this progress or retrogression? When we pop the “book” on tape into the slot are we reading or is it lectio time?

Remember that trade mark illustration used on early recordings (Was it the RCA company?) of the little dog gazing stupefied into the megaphone of a wind-up Victrola? Remember the title: “His masters voice.” Why does this image come barging into my consciousness?

By the way, the last work in the “Artful Reading” exhibit was recognizable and in some ways my favorite. Meant to serve as a sharp contrast to the glorious works from a thousand years past surrounding the viewer, it was a black and white photograph by Walker Evans from his “Subway Portraits, 1938-41.” It shows a man in a subway car, intent and concentrating on the newspaper unfolded in front of him. It’s a photograph, so who can say if his eyes were “scanning the page . . . his voice silent and his tongue still”? I somehow feel certain his mind was in motion.

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