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.


  1. It’s annoying that I can’t type as fast as I talk, yes, but I hardly type “one tedious letter at a time”, any more than I speak one tedious phoneme at a time. When watching myself (which of course is not the ordinary state of affairs), I’d say that while typing my verbal (as opposed to cognitive) intention runs a few words ahead of my fingers; it’s like talking v*e*r*y s*l*o*w*l*y, like the man who told Polish jokes to the (former) Pope.

  2. “To appreciate more fully [Augustine’s] worry about the freedom to read, one must remember that reading in his time was not silent. Silent reading is a recent invention. Augustine was already a great author and the Bishop of Hippo when he found that it could be done. In his Confessions he describes the discovery. During the night, charity forbade him to disturb his fellow monks with noises he made while reading. But curiosity impelled him to pick up a book. So, he learned to read in silence, an art that he had observed in only one man, his teacher, Ambrose of Milan. Ambrose practiced the art of silent reading because otherwise people would have gathered around him and would have interrupted him with their queries on the text. Loud reading was the link between classical learning and popular culture.
    Habitual reading in a loud voice produces social effects. It is an extraordinarily effective way of teaching the art to those who look over the reader’s shoulder; rather than being confined to a sublime or sublimated form of self-satisfaction, it promotes community intercourse; it actively leads to common digestion of and comment on the passages read. In most of the languages of India, the verb that translates into “reading” has a meaning close to “sounding.” The same verb makes the book and the vina sound. To read and to play a musical instrument are perceived as parallel activities. The current, simpleminded, internationally accepted definition of literacy obscures an alternate approach to book, print, and reading. If reading were conceived primarily as a social activity as, for example, competence in playing the guitar, fewer readers could mean a much broader access to books and literature.”
    Ivan Illich, Vernacular Values
    Illich’s “In the Vineyard of the test” is a history of bookmaking, IIRC. I have it somewhere, in one of sixty boxes.

  3. David Marjanovi? says

    “All readers, even the fast ones, subvocalize.”
    Agreed, but I touch-type with 10 fingers and have found that I type fastest when I don’t imagine the sounds of the words I’m copying. (Haven’t tried typing really fast for other purposes.)

  4. I’ve been typing much more during the last few years than I ever did before, and I’ve found myself making more and more phonetic typing errors — I type much faster now, but not more accurately (two-finger).
    I also have a lot of shortcuts in my fingers, and sometimes I’ll use the wrong shortcut and type a real word which is in some way similiar to the right word, but in context nonsensical.
    I also have several misspelled shortcuts, “environemental” being one that popped up recently and which is very peristent, even though I am conscious of it now.

  5. The Augustine-Ambrose point is frequently misused: as Carruthers points out, what surprised Augustine was that Ambrose only read silently. Peter Saenger has a very interesting article (in Viator 13, 1982) on the history of silent reading, which is not a recent invention, pace Illich (whose “Vineyard” must be taken with a pinch of salt, though it contains undeniably entertaining passages).
    It’s amazing that Powers takes Wordwordth’s word for its worth.
    Powers’ last point is pure meaningless rhetoric, as Cowan notes. Personally I like the sense of precision and solidity I get from typing (though I hate writing by hand). When writing properly (ie. not in comment boxes) I read my own text aloud several times, and make minute (and non-minute) adjustmnets. ‘Flow’, in the superficial sense, is overrated, as is spontaneity. Powers suggests that he doesn’t have a very strong concentration.

  6. Argh. If you’ve ever composed anything of any length in your head, you know it’s a very slow, repetitive process, as you fix it in your head. Dictation may be fluent but pure composition without recording devices is the opposite.

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