Thursday, December 29, 2016

The voiceover in dreams and ancient habits of reading

The voiceover in dreams, especially when we are reading text, suggests oneiric reversion to the habits of our literate early ancestors, who typically read aloud rather than silently. In his Confessions, Augustine describes the remarkable sight of Ambrose (who was also made a saint) reading silently.  Vox autem et lingua quiescebant, “His voice and tongue maintained silence.” Augustine conjectured that he read in this unusual way because he often had other people coming and going around him and wanted to discourage them from interrupting his studies with questions and comments. [Confessions 6.3]
    Speaking the words aloud while you had your head in a scroll or codex was the default mode of reading in the ancient world. It seems this was still the case when Augustine wrote his Confessions around 400. In A History of Reading, Alberto Manguel maintains that St.Augustine’s description of St. Ambrose’s reading habit is the first definite instance of silent reading recorded in western literature.
     Paul Saenger an expert on medieval manuscripts and a curator of rare books at Chicago's Newberry Library, believes that reading aloud was a practical necessity, given the form of early manuscripts. In his recent book Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading Saenger contends that the practice of transcribing Greek and Latin manuscripts without spaces, in 
scriptio continua, made reading silently a wearisome and excruciatingly difficult task. "It wasn't literally impossible to read silently, but the notation system was so awkward that the vast majority of readers would have needed to sound out the syllables, if only in a muffled voice."  Scriptio continua looks like this:

    It was only at the end of the seventh century, when Irish monks introduced regular word separation into medieval manuscripts, that quick and silent reading became easy and agreeable. A celebrated example is the Book of Kells.    
    I notice that when I read text in dreams – which I do very frequently, as in waking life – the words are often spoken out loud, in my mind. Sometimes the narrator seems to speak in a different voice. More often, I hear my own voice, as if I am reading aloud. This makes it much easier for me to follow and retain text than it might be if the lines were passing only in front of my dreaming eyes. When other dream researchers report that it is supposedly difficult to read and remember written material in dreams, I am incredulous, since I manage to understand and bring back so much text from my own dreams. But maybe this is easier for those of us who maintain, in dreams, the ancient default habit of reading aloud, creating the right spaces and rhythms for understanding and remembering.

Above: St. Ambrose reading silently
Below: word separation in the Book of Kells

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