“Reading is ultimately a retreat into silence.”

Daniel Pennac, in The Rights of the Reader (2006), said that reading is ultimately a retreat into silence. I thought about why this is and then wrote the following list:

  1. Although we are not alone, we read alone.
  2. Although what happens when we read is not quiet, it makes us quiet.
  3. What we see and sense when we read happens inwardly no matter how powerful, and the more devastating the experience, the deeper the retreat.
  4. Even though reading is all about the written word, a book can leave us with no words to describe it. This is because we are not describing the book, we are describing what our self has become after reading it, and this is often too new to have any vocabulary yet.
  5. Reading draws on and makes use of what we already know and what we already are, and then somehow turns this material broadside and sends it (and us) bowling down new allies.
  6. Reading can reach our hidden and distraught places (the ones that live on piles of silence) and let in some air.
  7. Reading is private and delicate and social and diabolical.
  8. It is only in silence that we can find our troubles, and reading provides a safe balcony to look from.
  9. Reading leaves us alone to find our own face.
  10. Although we are alone, we actually don’t read alone.

Illustration by Lorena Spurio


“Decisions must not always be probed too hard, or moods unpacked. We should respect and not tinker with emotions, especially as they relate to love and the spiritual varieties of experience. We need to fall silent – more frequently than we do – and simply listen.”
Alain de Botton

Photography by Warren Millar

In silence there is eloquence. Stop weaving and see how the pattern improves…. Rumi


Sometimes the noise of silence is unbearable. There is nothing about it that I like. When there are no customers in my bookshop, it means that it is silent. Then I wonder if the shop is doing well.

It does not worry Leon, he comes in and tells me not to worry about it because at least the weather is good. He tells me he is having another go at Twilight, the best book about vampires there is.

I ask him why everyone is just walking past the shop today, and he says it is because they don’t want to come in.

Then he asks me what I am reading, and I show him: Marcovaldo, by Italo Calvino, and he says it looked pretty boring. Leon always makes me laugh.  Then I stop worrying and planning, and the pattern improves.

A lady, who has just come in tells me that she always wished that she read books. The nuns did teach her to read but…….and she stood for a long time just thinking about this.

Leon asks me later if I thought the nuns had been cruel to that lady. I said I didn’t know, and he asked if she taught herself to read like he had to, and even though he still couldn’t read very well it didn’t stop him from having a go at the vampires. He just let the words make sense to him if they wanted to.

But it is hard to sit in silence and worry about the shop.

A young girl, perhaps 13, was considering a book for her birthday and could not choose between The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll (an enormous and very heavy edition in raspberry pink leather and with lemon and liquorice endpapers,) or a green and silver leather edition of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.

I was curious about her dilemma; she picked the Faulkner. I asked her why, and she said that she didn’t know why, she just liked the book. But she also liked the gold on the pages, and she likes books that don’t bend. She said that she just knew she would like this book. These things just come to her. In the silence?

A customer has returned to lend me their copy of The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields. He told me that I will love it and to take my time with it. It occurs to me that to be lent a beloved book is to be a given a renewed lease on enjoyment ( if I allow it to) and is also no small risk to the lender.

Outside there is an argument between a Telstra van and a milk truck who both want the same car park. Telstra is on the phone and I hope he can’t get a signal.

A lovely couple that visit every week tell me to keep up the good work.

I am asked for The Naming of Names by Anna Pavord, and Horse Heaven by Jane Smiley. Then later, Alistair Cooke’s America, and anything by Dorothy Parker.

I am informed twice that people are tired of books now and just want to read from their phones. I’m not sure if this is true.

In the afternoon quiet I consider The Stone Diaries. In the silence (that means no customers) the books, the writing, the meaning of the books, everything is richer and more illuminated. Improved patterns.

“Does not everything depend on our interpretation of the silence around us?”

Lawrence Durrell, Justine