How reading evolved has never occupied much space in my mind.

During my schooling, I was made vaguely familiar with the history of the text and moveable type. Yet, how we read never garnered much focus. This has radically changed in recent years.

Silent reading is something I presumed has existed for some time. Yet, the opposite appears to be true. The way we read today could not be more different. Reading as we know it is an introverted activity. We can lock ourselves away and explore the vast and interesting worlds the writer has created just for us. 


It surprised me to learn that humans have only been reading for the last 5,000 years or so. For centuries, Europeans who possessed the skill to read did so aloud. A habit also replicated by the Greeks and monks of Europe’s dark ages.

This changed drastically in the 17th century, mainly due to advancements in text technologies. Moveable type was introduced and the rise of writing helped shift reading into the silent activity we love today.

Sometimes I read aloud what I have written to check for errors. But there is something indulgent about reading in silence. The words take on a magical quality when they fill the space inside our heads. They conjure worlds that we can explore at our own pace and get lost in.

I find it amusing that silent reading was initially perceived as rude. Similar to how we feel about smartphones today suggests D. Vance Smith, a medievalist in the Princeton English department

Like someone going on texting while you’re trying to talk to them,”

Smith goes onto say

“The default assumption in the classic period, if you were reading around other people, you’d read aloud and share it,”

Yet reading aloud today would perhaps be perceived as odd. Can you imagine if the person next to you in the train suddenly starting reading their text aloud to you aloud? What would you think?

Up until the 1800s, reading had been a social activity. It took place in workshops, barns, and taverns. Yet the1800s saw a significant shift towards silent reading. An activity first adopted by wealthy and educated people who could afford books and to be idle.

In the 1700s, people only had a select number of books which they read and reread. While the 1800s introduced an increase in reading. Mainly newspaper and periodicals which eventually extended to literature.

Alberto Manguel writes in his 1996 book, A History of Reading:

But with silent reading the reader was at last able to establish an unrestricted relationship with the book and the words. The words no longer needed to occupy the time required to pronounce them. They could exist in interior space, rushing on or barely begun, fully deciphered or only half-said, while the reader’s thoughts inspected them at leisure, drawing new notions from them, allowing comparisons from memory or from other books left open for simultaneous perusal. And the text itself, protected from outsiders by its covers, became the reader’s own possession, the reader’s intimate knowledge, whether in the busy scriptorium, the market-place or the home.

While librarian Paul Saenger writes in his 1997 book, Space between Words.

“Psychologically, silent reading emboldened the reader because it placed the source of his curiosity completely under personal control,”

Saenger writes that 

social reading helped facilitate intellectual rigor, introspection, criticism of the government and religion, even irony and cynicism that would have been awkward to read aloud.

The key importance of reading to oneself it allowed people to learn and reflect without religious guidance or censure.


The most pivotal cause of this shift from oral to silent reading may lie with the Irish monks. Who, translating Latin in the seventh century, added spaces between words to help them and the readers understand the language better. This single change in design help the rise of silent reading.

Yet this change did not stem from a desire to advocate silent reading. Empathy lay at the root of this change. The scribes were empathetic towards their readers. They did not know who their readers would be, or how fluent they might be in reading Latin. So, they searched for a unified way to illustrate to them how to read. 

While the end of oral reading in the Middle Ages may be partly due to the Renaissance. A time in history, where there was an immense preoccupation with the individual. It is also possible that the burgeoning human desire for privacy bubbled over. This desire to carve out a place for personal escape latched onto silent reading and never let go.

In learning about how silent reading came to be, I treasure the activity even more. Yet I cannot help feel a little sadness towards the removal of oral reading from society.

Perhaps there is space for both in this world. A space for silence and also noise.


What about you? How do you feel about silent reading? 

Sarah Healy is a freelance writer, designer and adventuress originally hailing from the green isle of Ireland. Currently traversing Australia, she’s running desert marathons, thriving in the remote Outback and forever seeking new adventures. Visit Sarah at SarahTheAdventuress.com.
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Sarah Healy is a freelance writer, designer and adventuress originally hailing from the green isle of Ireland. Currently traversing Australia, she’s running desert marathons, thriving in the remote Outback and forever seeking new adventures. Visit Sarah at SarahTheAdventuress.com.

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