A Brief History of Communication:  Chat, Reading Aloud & Reading Silently

At the classical library.

Women have always known the value of chat. They know the value of chat as a primary means of communication. Their husbands may grunt over football and yell at the TV,  but women prefer to talk and exchange information.  Think of Martha Mitchell and the problems she unleashed when she ratted out her dishonest husband during Watergate.. She was a bit of a chatty heroine,  but I view her with affection.

My mother was chatty and prodigiously well-informed.   She  chatted for hours on the phone and then made a point of going to stores so so she could chat with sales clerks or cashiers.   And reading aloud to her children was a form of chat: we may not have been good conversationalists, but we loved our little Golden Books, fairy tales, and Dr. Seuss books.

Even a trip to Walgreen’s with my mother took an hour while we considered buying identical university t-shirts (“Go, team!”) and searched for a special brand of support hose she liked.  And then we chatted to the pharmacist about her medication, until we could rattle off all the side effects, by which time no sane person would dream of taking those pills, though my mother took her chances and lived to be very old.

In the ancient world, my mother would have had plenty of opportunities to chat: she might have haggled over greens at the market, dithered over the Saturnalia gifts,. or complained about potions she bought from quack herbalists.

There were certainly diversions in the ancient world:  holidays, festivals, shops, the games, feasts, and fine wine. Sadly, there was little reading except among the upper classes, and a few of us women might have started a feminist movement in order to read the books.  In W. V. Harris’s book, Ancient Literacy, he calculated that the maximum literacy rate was 20-30% – and that was in Hellenistic cities.

The actual method of reading in ancient Greek and Rome might strike one as anomalous.There was no silent reading till the Middle Ages, writes  Irene Vallejo in her superb book, Papyrus:  The Invention of Books in the Ancient World.  In ancient Greece and Rome, readers spoke the words out loud as they read them, whether they were reading to themselves or others.  And writers spoke the words aloud as they wrote.

How did ancient writers manage?  Cicero dictated to  his secretary, Tiro. And he had a chance to practice his oration as it was transcribed.

 I cannot imagine the impulsive Catullus reading aloud as he scribbled his charming poems to Lesbia, even though he based some of them on Sappho’s (in one case, almost word for word.) More likely he’d be mussing his hair up, making faces in the mirror, crossing out lines with a stylus, calling for pocula of wine, and damning Lesbia’s infidelity.  I do love Catullus.

The intellectual Virgil would have weighed his words with pietas (honoring his duties to the gods, his country, and his family) and with allusions to Homer’s epics .  Intellectual Virgil blended history, myth, nationalism, and religion into his Roman epic, the Aeneid, based on Homer’s  Iliad and Odyssey. (T. S. Eliot wrote an essay, “What Is a Classic?”, claiming that the Aeneid is the best poem in not only Latin but in any language.) As for wild Ovid, author of Metamorphoses and Amores, he broke so many rules that I can only imagine he was the first rebellious silent reader.

I am generally a silent reader, but my husband and I have rediscovered the joys of reading aloud. We are currently reading Conrad’s Victory. If you’re interested, you can start your own group or check out Sharing Reading groups online and Reading Aloud groups at public libraries. Or simply pair up with a friend: you can read a play and change the voices to amuse yourselves.

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