Listening to books has a long history, but so does silent reading | Letter

The audiobook can be seen as a democratisation of a practice once available only to the elite, says Greg Brooks

Why should Gaby Hinsliff and others not take pleasure in listening to books (Ignore the purists – listening to a book instead of reading it isn’t skiving or cheating, 29 December)? In antiquity and the middle ages, when few people could read, those who could not relied on gaining information by listening to oral readings of letters, proclamations, inscriptions etc, and even those who could read very often enjoyed professional oral performances of works of literature. So the audiobook can, in fact, be seen as democratisation of a practice once available only to the elite.

However, this does not mean, as Kathryn Hughes put it in her review of Papyrus by Irene Vallejo (8 December), that “all reading [in antiquity] occurred out loud”. Oral reading was perhaps more frequent than nowadays, but silent reading was known very early – the earliest historical personage said to have read silently is Alexander the Great.

The notion that ancient reading was almost exclusively oral has arisen from a famous passage in Saint Augustine’s Confessions, in which he seems to express surprise that Saint Ambrose was reading silently while in company. But this is a misinterpretation. The key sentence, translated idiomatically, reads: “This is how we saw him reading, silently. He always read like that.” So it wasn’t unusual – and nor should listening to books be now.
Greg Brooks

The GuardianTramp

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