Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading

Rate this book
Reading, like any human activity, has a history. Modern reading is a silent and solitary activity. Ancient reading was usually oral, either aloud, in groups, or individually, in a muffled voice. The text format in which thought has been presented to readers has undergone many changes in order to reach the form that the modern Western reader now views as immutable and nearly universal. This book explains how a change in writing―the introduction of word separation―led to the development of silent reading during the period from late antiquity to the fifteenth century. Over the course of the nine centuries following Rome’s fall, the task of separating the words in continuous written text, which for half a millennium had been a function of the individual reader’s mind and voice, became instead a labor of professional readers and scribes. The separation of words (and thus silent reading) originated in manuscripts copied by Irish scribes in the seventh and eighth centuries but spread to the European continent only in the late tenth century when scholars first attempted to master a newly recovered corpus of technical, philosophical, and scientific classical texts. Why was word separation so long in coming? The author finds the answer in ancient reading habits with their oral basis, and in the social context where reading and writing took place. The ancient world had no desire to make reading easier and swifter. For various reasons, what modern readers view as advantages―retrieval of reference information, increased ability to read “difficult” texts, greater diffusion of literacy―were not seen as advantages in the ancient world. The notion that a larger portion of the population should be autonomous and self-motivated readers was entirely foreign to the ancient world’s elitist mentality. The greater part of this book describes in detail how the new format of word separation, in conjunction with silent reading, spread from the British Isles and took gradual hold in France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. The book concludes with the triumph of silent reading in the scholasticism and devotional practices of the late Middle Ages.

504 pages, Paperback

First published December 1, 1997

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Paul Saenger

7 books1 follower

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
7 (22%)
4 stars
14 (45%)
3 stars
8 (25%)
2 stars
2 (6%)
1 star
0 (0%)
Displaying 1 - 4 of 4 reviews
Profile Image for Nick.
162 reviews25 followers
April 15, 2009
What is reading to you? Curled up on your favourite armchair, a drink by your side, perhaps a little background music, galloping through the pages of one of your favourite authors. Well, about 700 years ago this was unimaginable. No, not because they didn't have CD players, but because reading was never silent. How did reading become silent? According to Saenger, in this thoroughly researched and fascinating study, by adding spaces between words. Until the 7th Century in Ireland, 8th in England and 12th in France, most reading had to be aloud because that was the only way that texts would make any sense. It was normal for text, which was generally Latin and most often religous, to be written in 'scriptura continua' (continuous script). With no punctuation and no spaces, the best way to make any sense out of the text was to use the wide range of endings and agreements in Latin to help read the text aloud. Don't beleive me? Try this, 1st in your head, and then aloud:
Even with almost no recent practice in loud reading you will probably find it more efficient to decipher aloud than in silence (if you still haven't got it, try Shakespeare's King Lear 1.II http://www.online-literature.com/shak...).
With copious examples from historical texts, Saenger not only charts the progress of spaces between words, and later punctuation marks, but also reveals the enormous impact this apparently innocuous innovation had on culture. He argues that as reading moved from the select few scribes and church leaders who would both read aloud and interpret to others sections of religous text, to a slightly larger group of privileged educated people from other walks of life, and as written text became available in the vernaculars of different regions enabling non-religous texts to be more widely distributed, the interpretation of text shifted from a social to an individual act. No longer were the church authorities around to prescribe the import of any section of the bible - alone in their room medieval nobles were able to make up their own mind. Could it be that spaces between words precipitated the French revolution?
Saenger points out that modern reading studies have revealed how spaces enable silent reading. Although we all experience a smooth flow to our reading, our eyes are busy darting around across the page in movement called saccades. Our eyes literally jump from one part of the text to another, then rest and use peripheral vision to spot the next jumping point. In general we will jump to the start of the next group of words centered on a 'content' rather than a grammatical word (such as an auxiliary verb or a determiner). Without spaces, our eyes are lost in a stream of letters.
While this may not appear to be the most interesting of subjects to many people, it demonstrates how easy it is to overlook an apparently simple part of our everyday experience and presume it is natural. Space between words are not only an invention, they could be the most important contribution to literate societies. Without the spaces between words, you would have to read this review aloud. I bet you didn't.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Ioana Hodor.
92 reviews39 followers
January 9, 2023
A very interesting and useful book about the evolution and usage of the space between words and its cultural, historical and sociological implications. Definitely recommend it to researchers, scholars or anyone interested in the areas of book production, history of writing, reading practices.
Profile Image for Javier.
12 reviews2 followers
January 10, 2019
I found this book fascinating! It gives you an exhaustive description of all the factors behind the transition from reading aloud to silent reading and the outcomes of such a transition. Also, if your curiosity is aroused and leaves you wanting for more, you will find plenty of references to follow. I'm only giving it three stars; first because of the lack of illustrations, as already pointed out in previous comments. This would have been really useful to a novice like me. And secondly because of the writing style. I just found myself scratching my head a few to many times. Maybe this kind of writing is out of my league but I did however find many explanations about the scratching in Pinker's Sense of Style. Altogether, this is a terrific book and will give you plenty of good conversations.
Displaying 1 - 4 of 4 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.