James J. O'Donnell

title.none: Saenger, Space Between Words (O'Donnell)

identifier.other: baj9928.0002.024 00.02.24

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: James J. O'Donnell , University of Pennsylvania,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Saenger, Paul. Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading. Figurae: Reading Medieval Culture. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997. Pp. xix, 480. $49.50. ISBN: 0-804-72653-1.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.02.24

Saenger, Paul. Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading. Figurae: Reading Medieval Culture. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997. Pp. xix, 480. $49.50. ISBN: 0-804-72653-1.

Reviewed by:

James J. O'Donnell
University of Pennsylvania

"The freedom of expression that private, silent reading gave to hitherto suppressed sexual fantasies also paradoxically intensified the depth of lay religious experience" (275). This admirable study ends with what may or not be paradox. Silent reading fosters intense private experience, and the affinity of "theos" and "eros" is not unknown.

But this sentence from the last page well captures the intellectual adventure of this altogether admirable book. Seizing the personality of its implicit reader is not easy, and repays the effort. On one level, the implicit reader identifies with the author, whose interest began with an attempt to wrestle to the ground the ancient question of when and how silent reading became a common practice. The question is oddly attractive, and half-answers remarkably easy to come by. The easiest half-answer is that silent reading was invented by Ambrose of Milan and observed by Augustine of Hippo (Confessiones 6.3.3--leading one wag to observe that Augustine was a quick study, inasmuch as he was practicing the same skill in the intense and deep lay religious experience of his own conversion by Conf. 8.12.29, "aperi et legi in silentio"). But already thirty years ago, Bernard Knox ( Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 9 [1968], 421-436) showed that the practice was attested long before Augustine. At the same time, it is clear that it did not become commonplace until long after. How to trace it? Saenger became interested in the question more than twenty years ago and published a seminal article in Viator (13 [1982] 366-414) that many of us have cited since with admiration. This volume now tells the story again in vastly greater depth.

The short form of Saenger's answer is implicit in his title. It was when, in the later middle ages, regular spacing of words on the written page became commonplace, that the practice of a purely visual and private reading became so easy as to become widespread. To summarize the argument so baldly, however, is to give no sense of the riches of this volume, and to risk losing the implicit reader with most to learn here. That reader is the student of medieval manuscript culture, whether palaeographer or no, who can profit from the guidance of a master craftsman in the palaeographical arts through a dazzling exploration of undertheorized, underobserved, and under-assessed medieval writing practices. It is possible, perhaps likely, that some will dissent from the particular argument that Saenger structures--that is, his claim that the textual practices he observes were the necessary and sufficient condition of the rise of silent reading. But that argument is, for all its power, a superstructure erected on the vast bulk of this work, like a dizzying spire looming over a richly constructed Gothic cathedral. Had the spire never been built, the cathedral would have been the poorer--but some observers might never have noticed the lack.

And so with uncompromising attention to detail and at the same time a lucidity of narrative that makes the book impressively accessible to the non-specialist reader, Saenger tracks practices of word separation and manuscript presentation step by step through a wide variety of insular and continental scriptoria. The fons et origo in some ways is Virgilius Maro, the Irish grammarian of the seventh century, who theorized the "word" in new ways and showed a practice compatible with that theory. No homogeneity of practice spread easily through the manuscript culture of those times, and the story in the chapters that follows is one of multiple foci, multiple centuries, and almost infinite variation. To Saenger's great credit, he traces the story with the patience it requires. Where he has left himself most vulnerable is in a brief initial chapter on the physiology of reading practices. He has worked hard here and brought material together in useful and brief compass. But the stretch from that survey to the manuscript practices he outlines and then to the theory about reading practices he constructs is the most venturesome and vulnerable part of the book. It will surely be tested. But the value of the book does not lie in the outcome of that debate (one which I expect to see resolved in Saenger's favor), nor--and hence the point of this review--can or should the book be imagined or read as merely addressing the question of silent reading. It is instead a book about medieval cultures with wide applicability and relevance. The beginning student curious about the reasons for studying not only editions but manuscripts can and should be sent to these pages for an orientation to palaeography and manuscript culture. The scholar who knows medieval culture too well and palaeography too traditionally (as a set of discourses about scribes and scriptoria and a traditional narrative binding them) should come to this book for a fresh perspective. This is, in short, an impressive and masterful book by a scholar and librarian (from the Newberry) of immense skill both in the investigation and the description of his subject.