When you look at this picture, what do you see? People reading, yes. Are they reading together or alone? I get a sense of alone-together from this group. Each is absorbed in his reading but it’s a companionable solitude, or so it looks to me.
In a sense, though, every reader is always a solitary reader. A good book generates a force field that keeps the world out, whether you’re on a park bench or in a library or in Grand Central Station. That’s part of the fun, yes? At least it is for me. When I read, I don’t feel alone, even if there’s no-one else nearby. The book is with me; the author or narrator, the characters, the setting keep me company. It’s hard to be lonely. And yet I am delightfully alone when I read, no matter where I am. It’s a private world.
Enter social reading, enabled by online platforms like Social Book, created by the Institute for the Future of the Book. If I don’t want to be alone when I read—if I want to share my thoughts and reactions with other readers—I can get online and talk to them around the text itself. In theory, anyway, readers can have company wherever we are, as long as we can get online. We don’t have to be sharing a park bench to read together. We can find company in the margins—if we want to. More on that in a minute.
I recently wrote a column about a neat Social Book pilot project, the Open Utopia, which invites the world to comment on and even rewrite Thomas More’s 16th-century classic (“With ‘Social Reading,’ Books Become Places to Meet,” CHE, Nov. 26, 2012). I talked to professors who are experimenting with social reading in their classrooms, with some success. They say that social reading draws students into assigned reading and generates a lot of discussion—sometimes too much. As I say in the article, though, too much discussion is not really a bad problem to have. It’s certainly better than the dull disengagement and the glassy-eyed stare of the bored student.
I expect to see social reading take off in classrooms. It seems like a natural there. Will it catch on with us solitary types reading on park benches, in train stations, in our living rooms? I’m not sure I want more company when I read. But I will try to make room on the bench.