Recently I've become interested in the act of reading aloud - as performance, as collective experiment and as a political act.
Reading aloud, outside of a context designed for performative action, can be seen as academically immature. Indeed, children learn to read aloud, and then are taught to let the internal voice take over, to grow into discreet, private readers.
I find this transition from audible reading to silent reading particularly significant, as it's a shift that is mirrored in human history. The earliest human texts were designed not to be just read but spoken. Cuneiform picture-symbols did not generate meaning in themselves; they signified sounds, and it was the sound that conveyed the meaning. In A History of Reading Alberto Manguel points out that "the primordial languages of the Bible - Aramaic and Hebrew - do not differentiate between the act of reading and the act of speaking; they name both with the same word." Arguably today we still perform texts silently as we read them, hallucinating an interior voice quietly vocalising each phrase.
There is evidence of silent reading going back to the time of Herodotus, but it only became commonplace around the 10th century AD. It was around this time that European scribes began inserting spaces in between words on manuscripts. It's not clear whether these subtly radical spaces advanced the shift towards
silent reading, or were a result of it. Nevertheless, they reflect
surging literacy levels and a shift in the uses of reading - away from civic announcements and group scholarship towards a more insular experience.
The Westminster Anarchist Book Club was an experiment in the uses of reading that I developed as part of artist Mat Jenner's exhibition atTenderbooks in November 2015. With consideration to Tenderbooksand its location on the edge of the 'Westminster Village’, the Club convened within a sensorial space built by Jenner that was conceived as both a literal and imagined heterotopia, "an alternative other place of possibility". The book club focused on Max Frisch's 1979 novella Man in the Holocene and took a different approach to the traditional model of the reading group. Participants were invited to present a response to the text across a range of forms and media, from spoken word to objects, lectures, performances of music or movement, anecdotes, recorded sound, film and moving image, drawing, collage, food, drink and beyond. Responses referenced the text obliquely, tangentially, or not at all, and were not always fully resolved or realised.
In between individual or group contributions, we read passages aloud. We discussed the idea of reading the whole book together, aloud, with participants reading one paragraph at a time, and how this would affect, enhance or impede our absorption of the text. Some participants said that they felt the experience of reading aloud to the group was not enjoyable and left them feeling vulnerable or infantilised.
I was surprised at how intimate and moving it felt to me. Perhaps it was because reading seems to be predicated on absence; on the absence of the author from the reader, and the absence of the sound from the word. Reading aloud situates the reader in a conversation across space and time and allays that absence to a degree. It's also an offering and resembles a generous or charitable act, and perhaps it was this too that Club members found unnerving that evening in our sensorial space, womb-like in its warmth and glow. After all, many of us were strangers to one another.