Over the last few weeks, I have seen several articles both in print and on-line discussing a phenomenon referred to as “social reading.” Being the technological resister (or ignoramus) that I am (no smart phone, no apps, no twitter), I at first took the phrase “social reading” to be a reference to book groups or some other form of face to face interaction. Silly me. I was soon enlightened; today “social” refers to communicating with others, many of whom you’ve never met, using certain on line services or “apps” dedicated to that purpose.
Social reading seems to occur in two major categories. There are places where one can comment on or review a book one has read, interacting through these comments with others and sharing insights and opinions. These have been around for several years, and seem to me to be valuable especially to readers who for reasons of physical location or hectic schedules are unable to communicate their thoughts to other readers in person. Most book groups do not meet late at night, and many people are unable to find time during “normal” hours to reflect on their reading. Others dislike having to read books on a schedule or avoid groups for other reasons. For those unable or unwilling to belong to a book group, these on line forums provide an opportunity to share and learn.
With the advent of e-books, a new world of communication has opened for those wishing to share their thoughts, and, maybe, ponder the thoughts of others. This world is the one I find a bit frightening. One can now, while reading a book, view other readers’ highlighting, comments, likes or dislikes and can even see the amount of on line activity focused on a particular page. As a reader, I don’t want my thinking influenced that much as I read. I may choose to read a book based on recommendations or reviews, but while reading I want to react independently. My own reactions are also subject to change as I progress through a book. I would not want my knee-jerk thoughts to go out to the world, only to be retracted three pages later as I see more of the author’s intent. I wonder how a person can really read while constantly being bombarded with other readers’ comments or while making comments oneself. My notes to myself are to myself, usually to be tossed after finishing the book, unless there is a quote I love or something I would like to discuss with others later.
One of the social skills we all learn (usually the hard way) is to engage the brain before putting the mouth in gear. Now, we need to remember to engage the brain before putting fingers to keyboards or keypads. It is too easy to shoot out a comment which will be preserved somewhere forever. I prefer telephone calls or in-person talks to e-mail whenever there is a topic of any sensitivity to be discussed; it is too easy, even for the best writers, to come across as unintentionally curt or nasty. The nuances of voice, facial expression, and the ability to immediately explain one’s thoughts are important to understanding between people. It takes too long to put all that in writing. A quickly typed “I can’t stand this character” may express feeling, but not the reasons why. Does he remind me of my childhood nemesis? Have a value system I deplore? Eat crackers in bed? Sometimes as readers we don’t understand our own emotional reactions while reading until we have time to reflect.
An experience this week is a perfect example of why my favorite form of “social reading” is the book group. One of the groups which meets at my store chose to read One Hundred Years of Solitude for our June selection. It was suggested by one member of the group who had read it several times and said it was one of her favorite books. I, and I think others, felt it was something we had always felt we should read. I expected it to be more difficult than the crime fiction I usually read, but if I had bleated out my thoughts at various points, they would have been: “Can’t this man write a paragraph less than three pages long?” “Why must all the characters have the same or similar names?” “These people are all nuts!” I finished the book, although I might not have without what I consider part of “social” interaction: keeping a commitment to others. I thought that the only good to come of it would be that I could honestly answer “Yes” when someone asked if I had read it. Many of us in the group see each other outside of meetings, and the general opinion was that either it was a terrible book or we were not intellectual enough to get it. The member who suggested the book had been on vacation, and we were anxious to hear her reasons for loving it. When we met, we asked her to explain her attraction to the book before we voiced our criticisms. She began by acknowledging all the “flaws” we saw, even saying that half the characters were “nuts.” She went on to say that she had read and reread it at different points in her life, always finding more to enjoy. She has spent a great deal of time in South America, and explained how the life depicted was typical. One example was the fortress mentality in homes, perhaps brought on by constant wars, revolutions, and exploitation by foreigners. More discussion of cultural differences ensued. By the end of the meeting, we all felt we had not wasted our time, and those few who had not finished the book decided they would. I doubt that I will ever consider this to be one of my favorite books, but I am now glad for the experience. It is possible that having access to highlights or short comments while reading would have helped my understanding, but I think it would have just been a distraction when I was having enough trouble concentrating. Certainly my comments as I read would not be useful to others. But the conversation, with each person’s thoughts leading to more observations and insights, was valuable as we reflected on the book as a whole.
Is civilization going to come to an end because of instantaneous commentary on books, page by page or sentence by sentence? Probably not. I learned that there are people who now read Kindle highlights rather than books and say they have read the books. What they have read is what interests someone else, but they may be the same type who used to read book reviews and never the books, ingesting one person’s view instead of forming their own. My fear is that younger readers will think that the preferred way to read is with a cacophony of commentary as a companion, rather than in quiet isolation with one’s own thoughts. My hope is that they will tire of the bombardment, and see the value of focusing on the pleasure at hand without distraction. I am reminded of the gentleman at the supermarket deli counter the other day who was so intent on his smart phone that he missed his number when called. Several minutes later he raised his head, raised his hand with a now bypassed number, and seemed startled to realize what had happened. The rest of us grinned knowingly; our focus was on food, his elsewhere. He may have been conducting business or playing a game, but he almost missed his ham and cheese. We humans can only focus on one thing at a time. Books or comments, in any sequence, but one at a time. Don’t miss the meat while searching for the mayo.