When silent reading became the norm in the 10th century A.D.—the earlier custom being to recite manuscripts aloud—our minds were no longer shackled to our mouths. As writer Alberto Manguel describes it, “The words no longer needed to occupy the time required to pronounce them.” The result, he argues, was that it enabled us to reflect upon what we were reading while we were reading it.
As Paul La Farge writes in Nautilus, “When the reading brain becomes able to process written symbols automatically, the thinking brain, the I, has time to go beyond those symbols, to develop itself and the culture in which it lives.”
By way of analogy, La Farge draws upon the enrichment of our minds through silent reading to paint a more hopeful picture of the digital age.
“Done badly (which is to say, done cynically), the Internet reduces us to mindless clickers, racing numbly to the bottom of a bottomless feed; but done well, it has the potential to expand and augment the very contemplative space that we have prized in ourselves ever since we learned to read without moving our lips.”
For those who fear that reading online creates an extremely non-linear experience—hyperlinks, pop-ups, tabs and windows constantly tempting us to drop what we’re doing—La Farge provides still more extenuating background.
“The Internet may cause our minds to wander off, and yet a quick look at the history of books suggests that we have been wandering off all along. When we read, the eye does not progress steadily along the line of text; it alternates between saccades—little jumps—and brief stops, not unlike the movement of the mouse’s cursor across a screen of hypertext. From the invention of papyrus around 3000 B.C., until about 300 A.D., most written documents were scrolls, which had to be rolled up by one hand as they were unrolled by the other: a truly linear presentation. Since then, though, most reading has involved codices, bound books or pamphlets, a major advantage of which (at least compared to the scroll) is that you can jump around in them, from chapter to chapter (the table of contents had been around since roughly the first century B.C.); from text to marginal gloss, and, later, to footnote.”
We’ve been jumpers and scramblers, in other words, for millennia. So when it comes to hypertext—pages connected to one another via links—La Farge, citing studies, is confident it can extend our minds even further.
“One [study] involved readers with little prior knowledge of a subject, who were able to use a highly structured hypertext (one whose structure mirrored the organization of its subject matter) to learn more effectively than similar readers of linear text. In the other study, academically gifted readers learned better from unstructured hypertext than from linear text. The author, Amy Shapiro, hypothesized that these readers were obliged to engage more actively with the hypertext, in order to figure out the relation between its parts; this engagement led to increased understanding, the way puzzling over a difficult poem yields more than reading quickly through an easy one.”
As we learn to think “hypertextually,” we can only begin to guess at what new mental spaces we might be carving out for ourselves.