Reading has always been a solitary pursuit – by definition – in my mind.
I never sought membership of any kind of club or group that met to discuss books, other than being an English teacher spending my days in classroom conversation about reading, writing and literature. The idea of attending a ‘festival’ to listen to an author, or ask them questions, seemed a little silly. Surely each author’s thoughts and insights, knowledge and work were best approached by sitting, alone, with their prose. Reading meant being alone, with oneself, to paraphrase another, now deceased, resident of Kiama, Charmian Clift.
My attitude has changed, as has my reading behaviour, modified undoubtedly by the use of new technologies and the opportunities these provide. Amazon and the Kindle e-reader, iPads, iPhones, Audible and Shelfari are transforming the way one reads and shares that reading. One is still alone in a sense but social media allows the circulation of ideas with ‘followers’ and friends. It is increasingly easy to interact with authors (in lieu of attending literary events) and Twitter is awash with writers willing to be social (and help students/teachers). One wonders how they get anything written in some cases.
Reading is becoming social.
The concept of ‘social reading’ was not so clear to me when it was first discussed, a few years back, in the blogosphere. I did understand what Jeremy LeBard (what a great name) was getting at with ReadCloud, especially in a school context but wondered if it would catch on or not. Now, that I am reading books almost exclusively via my iPad, social reading is becoming more clearly a concept that will develop exponentially as more people start to engage with ebooks. It is a concept that English teachers, even those who are skeptical or concerned by the implications of making such data public (our library borrowing record would never be public under privacy laws) should, at the very least, have a working knowledge of the process to allow students the opportunity to debate the pros and cons of such sharing.
This is how it works. The iPad Kindle app allows you to highlight and share an interesting quote via email, Facebook or Twitter, as do other readers, like the ‘Nook’ or ‘Kobo’. These quotes and notes are collated as a record of highlights from the book and allows others to interact, potentially creating discussion and sharing. If you are a Twitter or Facebook enthusiast, it is a very natural thing to do. The process is quite instinctive and takes only a few precious seconds away from your reading compared to scribbling with pencil, as one once did (but not school books, of course). Making notes and selecting quotes that can be easily accessed, without the actual ‘book’ being handy is also useful for scholars and students. Audiobooks listened to via the Audible app have the same functionality. The listener can bookmark and share online.
It certainly gives new meaning to CS Lewis’ oft-quoted line, ‘we read to know we are not alone’.
To be reading a book and have the author respond to a tweet, is just magical. While writing this piece I discussed a novel by Jo Walton, via Twitter, recommended by James Bradley (@cityoftongues), author of ‘Wrack’. He had previously suggested Lev Grossman‘s novels ‘The Magicians’ and ‘The Magician King’ which reminded me of this anecdote (considering I was writing about social reading). While reading ‘The Magician King’ @leverus ended up responding to tweeted quotes about my amazement at him referring to the 1975 constitutional crisis in an American fantasy novel. Apparently his wife is Australian. It was a brief moment but unexpected and amusing. Similarly, Francis Fukuyama responded to my enthusiasm for his surprising new work, ‘The Origins of Political Order’ via Facebook. This kind of interaction is increasingly a fun possibility with social media.
I have been using Shelfari to share my reading via a ‘bookshelf’ at my blog for a while now. I enjoy seeing what other people are reading and often this kind of shelf, at blogs I frequent, provides great tips. It is easy to tag books and send the links to friends. Some students, especially in primary school, seem to enjoy collecting their books online and embedding shelves into their class and personal reading blogs. When opportunities arise, as schools use more and more technology in classes, it seems likely that sharing ebooks, ideas and quotes, via Facebook etc., pages will be popular. This is what happens already with music and films.
Some readers may feel that ‘social reading’ is more designed for advertising purposes rather than sharing with a community of like-minded readers. Of course, the importance of a literary festival is community, or advertising, depending on your point of view. Even genre, is as much an advertising ploy, as metalanguage to assist with understanding a text.
Living in a digital, online world allows data to be collected very easily. This may prove to be a blessing and a curse. An article in The Wall Street Journal by Alexandra Alter, ‘Your E-book is Reading You‘ makes the point that “for centuries, reading has largely been a solitary and private act, an intimate exchange between the reader and the words on the page. But the rise of digital books has prompted a profound shift in the way we read, transforming the activity into something measurable and quasi-public”. Some will feel concerned by the uses made of their ‘personal’ reading data and the purposes it may be employed for in the quest to create a better product, in this case, books that sell. How long did it take you to read the book? What were the most highlighted quotes? At what page did the reader just stop reading the book? All potentially useful data for publishers and authors. One finds it difficult, however, to imagine Tolkien, as he laboured long, finding it of much use to him.
What changes will we see in writing and reading due to digitisation? The medium may increasingly massage how the artist composes, as well as how the reader consumes. For example, do Amazon’s free sample chapters tempt writers to change their openings to sell more copies? Will readers choose to read controversial material offline rather than potentially publicise the material they choose to read to an employer or student? Increasingly, the decisions may be made with ‘the data’ firmly in mind, including how personal information will be used.
For many, the key issue is what impact will these changes have on our culture, particularly the culture of reading and writing. Will the free availability of classic novels mean more of these texts are read? There certainly has been a boon in the number of readers, of a different sort, needed to narrate audiobooks. What other employment opportunities will arise to counter the loss of traditional jobs in cultural industries? One notes that major newspapers have dispensed with the services of many copy editors in recent years. One wonders what the easy availability of self-publishing functionality at Amazon will have on editorial standards and publishing houses, as well as opportunities for budding authors? The issue of ebook piracy will also figure in discussions about the industry. Just as the misuse of printing presses to distribute atheist tracts and bibles written in the vernacular concerned the establishment in the 17th century, there will be many vested interests to protect, as well as legitimate concerns about intellectual property and the right of authors to make a living.
There’s something special about our relationship with the book. I read somewhere, many years ago, about an elderly man worrying that the closure of his local library would be the loss of that space where one could ‘retreat from the world’. It seems that reading is increasingly an activity that encourages us to participate rather than sequester ourselves away. This mostly seems positive for reading and readers, our culture and the future. Libraries may have fewer books as they change but more engagement with our culture, if managed positively. The library at Alexandria, when it burnt to the ground, did not result in the loss of one ‘book’ but much knowledge as parchment and papyrus scrolls were lost. A library that disappears now will probably not result in the loss of any knowledge. However, never has our collective need for shared spaces that value learning and knowledge been greater, if civil society is to flourish. I still visit the local library most weeks with my own children and always have books on loan. It is comforting, as my partner says, like the Sydney Morning Herald (which I have not read in hard copy for over three years) on a Saturday morning with a cup of tea.
As I get older, the counter-arguments to my enthusiasms seems to loom larger in imagination than often it need be – but nevertheless, we need to be careful with what we wish for sometimes. I read more widely and deeply due to the ready availability of inexpensive e-books compared to the days of buying desperately sought after new hardcovers at Angus & Robertson. Audiobooks allow me to ‘read’ while walking, mowing the lawn and performing a range of necessary but banal domestic duties. Books seems more important to me than ever before and reading is what I want every student to do, avidly. However, I may need to leave the last word on the importance of solitariness, in an age sharing, to Charmian Clift (however out of context):
“Why do I feel so strangely that there was some mysterious marvellous opportunity in all that silence? That I missed.” (p.203)
Kiama, July 2012
NB This piece will be published in mETAphor next month.
Alter, Alexandra, 2012. ‘Your E-Book Is Reading You’. The Wall Street Journal, [ONLINE] Available at: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304870304577490950051438304.html [Accessed 02 July 12].
Amazon. 2012. Darcy’s Amazon Highlights. [ONLINE] Available at: https://kindle.amazon.com/profile/Darcy-Moore/2784159. [Accessed 02 July 12].
Clift, Charmian, 1991. Being alone with oneself: essays 1968-69. 1st ed. North Ryde, NSW, Angus & Robertson.
Jeremy LeBard. 2012. ReadCloud. [ONLINE] Available at: http://readcloud.com. [Accessed 02 July 12].
Darcy Moore. 2012. Darcy Moore’s Blog: Social Reading. [ONLINE] Available at: http://darcymoore.net/2012/04/01/social-reading/. [Accessed 02 July 12].
Darcy Moore. 2012. Darcy Moore’s Blog: What can we learn from Francis Fukuyama?. [ONLINE] Available at: http://darcymoore.net/2012/04/14/what-can-we-learn-from-francis-fukuyama/. [Accessed 02 July 12].
Photographs: all images creative commons (cc) licensed ( BY NC SD ) flickr photos by Darcy Moore: http://www.flickr.com/photos/darcymoore/
Shelfari. 2012. My Shelf. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.shelfari.com/darcy1968/shelf. [Accessed 02 July 12].