The Uffizi in Florence is a historical gallery containing masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance. One of the most visited paintings is that of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, a painting also famous for provoking Stendhal’s Syndrome. But the Uffizi is also the home of Botticelli’s St. Augustine in his Cell (1490). St. Augustine, a Manichaean, converted to Catholicism after coming in contact with the bishop of Milan, Ambrose.
In his “Confessions”, Augustine describes Ambrose as a small man with a neat beard and delicate hands. But what amazed Augustine the most was the time Ambrose dedicated to reading and, even more surprising, silent reading.
Initially, people read out loud. In fact, during the Middle Ages, carrels (cubicles) were used in monasteries to help minimize the cacophony created by all the monks reading out loud simultaneously. And that’s why Augustine was so surprised at Ambrose’s ability to read silently to himself. Surprised and irritated because, at the time, it was considered rude to read to yourself instead of aloud if other people were present.
Eventually reading became a more common practice and, as late as the 1700s, reading became a social activity. But with the spread of literacy, it became more and more common to read silently to one’s self. By the 1800s people began wanting to read alone. By silent reading, the reader was able to develop an intimacy with the written word and the meanings they tried to construct.
Psychologically, silent reading helps the reader create an interior space and thus emboldens them. It so emboldened women that by the late 19th cen. there was much concern about women reading in bed alone and risking having their thoughts provoked. Lying in bed to read was considered depraved. But silent reading in bed has many positive benefits.
The more you read, the easier reading becomes. Reading can improve one’s memory, lower the risk of Alzheimer’s, as well as increase brain connectivity. Reading can also lower the blood pressure and heart rate facilitating sleep.
Reading helps develop visualization skills—how can you not have images come to mind, for example, when this description given by Anne Bronte in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall:
“His heart was like a sensitive plant, that opens for a moment in the sunshine, but curls up and shrinks into itself at the slightest touch of the finger, or the lightest breath of wind.”
Visualization contributes to our everyday functioning. Being able to imagine scenarios, for example, helps us plan our future. Visualization can also influence our perception.
What I enjoy most about reading non-fiction is that it transports me elsewhere and helps me go beyond boundaries. It’s like taking a vacation from the self.
Reading increases empathy. Because imagining the scenes in which others find themselves is like “walking in their shoes” and helps us better understand why they did what they did.
Related: The Material Culture of Literacy