One of my favorite novelists, Richard Powers, has an essay in the latest NY Times Book Review in which he says “I haven’t touched a keyboard for years”: he just speaks into a microphone and lets his computer do the rest.
For most of history, most reading was done out loud. Augustine remarks with surprise that Bishop Ambrose could read without moving his tongue. Our passage into silent text came late and slow, and poets have resisted it all the way. From Homer to hip-hop, the hum is what counts. Blind Milton chanted “Paradise Lost” to his daughters. Of his 159-line “Tintern Abbey,” Wordsworth said, “I began it upon leaving Tintern … and concluded … after a ramble of four or five days. … Not a line of it was altered, and not any part of it written down till I reached Bristol.” Wallace Stevens used to compose while walking to work, then dictate the results to his secretary, before proceeding to his official correspondence as vice president of the Hartford insurance company[…] The all-time champion of Xtreme Dictation, though, must be Thomas Aquinas. Witnesses report how he could relay four different topics to four secretaries at once, and even (Maritain writes) “lay down to rest in the midst of the dictation to continue to dictate while sleeping.” That’s what I really want from my tablet; I trust that technicians are working on the problem.
Why all this need for speech? Long after we’ve fully retooled for printed silence, we still feel residual meaning in the wake of how things sound. Speech and writing share some major neural circuitry, much of it auditory. All readers, even the fast ones, subvocalize. That’s why so many writers — like Flaubert, shouting his sentences in his gueuloir — test the rightness of their words out loud.
What could be less conducive to thought’s cadences than stopping every time your short-term memory fills to pass those large-scale musical phrases through your fingers, one tedious letter at a time? You’d be hard-pressed to invent a greater barrier to cognitive flow.
I should try it sometime, but being lazy and Luddish, I probably won’t.