What I’m Learning From What I’m Reading: Sara Maitland’s A Book of Silence

I’d like to propose a hypothesis:

“Students in college should be required to study literature because it’s not too late for them to become lifelong voracious readers.”

The obvious followup question is, “Why should they become lifelong voracious readers?”

I’m collecting answers to that, and Sara Maitland’s A Book of Silence suggests a few.

Maitland debates whether reading is in fact a “silent” activity at all, and comes to the conclusion, more or less, that it is.  Her discussion of the history of “literacy” is fascinating; did you know, for example, that the practice of reading without moving one’s lips may have begun in the time of Saint Augustine?  She then proposes, through a quote from the philosopher Adam Phillips, that silence may be a primary reason that reading is important:

What can a book give us that a person can’t?  One possible answer might be ‘the experience of a relationship in silence’ – the unusual experience of a relationship in which no one speaks.

Why should such a relationship be important?  To fully appreciate the value of silence, I think it’s necessary to read Maitland’s book.  However, I think we can all immediately recognize the utter lack of silence in our contemporary world, and especially in the lives of young people: iPods, YouTube videos, cell phones, thumping music at every boutique at the mall….  How many of my students get even a moment of silence every day?

(I experimented with enforcing a minute of silence in one of my classes last term, and although some students resisted so strongly that I gave up the struggle, some continued to ask for it, and whenever they asked, I gave it to them.)

A love of silence is like a love of reading.  In order to love something, you need first to experience it, and to receive some sort of reward from the experience.  We need to expose our students to books they might love, and teach them how to love them, so that they will continue to search for books they will love without our help.  Maybe we also need to expose them to silence – real, complete, prolonged silence – and give them some tools to work with it, so that they will crave it, and seek it out on their own.


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