For the longest time, we were talking about how the internet was making us unsocial. Rather than socializing with our neighbours and “real” friends and family, we were running after people we hadn’t even met, talking to them, chatting and exchanging ideas neglecting our real social lives (if we had any).
Or if we had a roaring online life it was automatically assumed that we chose internet social as a kind of consolation prize to real social. People were afraid that spending a lot of time online would lead to depression and unsocial, even antisocial behaviour.
Stereotypes of nerds have abounded in our social imagination a long time, of course. Think of Chaucer’s clerk in the Canterbury Tales with his threadbare overcoat, not speaking a word more than he could help, bent down with the weight of his twenty leather-bound books, a very rare handmade commodity back then.
Voracious readers were cloistered in their dens, reading by candlelight, socially awkward and not much fun.
Today, voracious readers are still cloistered in their dens reading by the bluish light of their screens, presenting an even more esoteric appearance. They are not much better than Chaucer’s clerk in taming their unruly hair though most are not thin enough to be supportable by a horse as thin as a rake like Chaucer’s clerk. In fact, many are quite the opposite sitting for long periods of time drinking coke and chips and not just in the so called First World.
That is not to say that these stereotypes are all untrue. Many “nerdy” readers are truly quite a wonder of the human species.
But with the coming of social media, we’ve seen a new kind of reading activity emerge. I don’t know if people have already found a name for it but I’m calling it social reading.
For some time, many of us have been lamenting the disappearance of books, including myself. The ability to feel, touch, smell, fold, tear, cover, decorate, find other people’s handwritings on the margins, other people’s personal letters tucked away in the pages, being able to indulge in nostalgia for the tactile and the auditory are all but disappearing.
An old social medium of exchange of knowledge and socialization that’s been around for a few hundred years is about to disappear, true. We can’t see the covers, so can’t strike up a conversation with an unknown person based on the book. Or physically lend a book to someone hoping she’ll come back to return it.
But what about the social nature of reading?
That’s come back with a vengeance!
The last time this happened was a very long time ago when printing became easy and popular increasing the range of the reading public in unprecedented ways. People read together in the family, sometimes the father reading aloud to everyone else. Circulating libraries emerged making it possible for people to read popular books. The working classes got together in questionable-looking pubs and someone read out the latest issue of gory serial fiction about trapdoors and dead bodies and body snatchers or illegitimate derivations of popular novels (say Charles Dickens) to an eager and gullible audience.
Reading has also been a religious practice for a long time. People read the Bible together. It’s still a common practice to gather together and read the Gita. I know that women gather together to read specific texts related to specific rituals in India. There must be many other examples.
But to the secular public, the significance of such social readings were all but disappearing. And with TV, those raucous crowds listening to stories had disappeared too replaced by sports bars or similar spaces (except for reading sessions in libraries maybe organized with great effort or conferences where people had a stake).
Come internet and social media, that sharing of reading material just for fun is coming back. If we like something we’ve read, we’re making sure our friends know. We are sharing together, commenting together, voting on reading material and even adding to it.
And yes, I agree with the strict adherents of the old social order that this sharing is juvenile. I believe that if you want to remain a good reader or good writer, (or good at anything else) you have to keep a juvenile part of yourself alive. The day you stop being excited about new things, of siding with growth, of enjoying a sense of wonder at the new, your day is gone. You can be sixteen and old and you can be sixty and still young.
This idea of sharing writing and reading material is especially significant to me because I grew up in a school system where people learnt by a mysterious process. They did learn. Otherwise I wouldn’t be writing today. But it was a system where the teacher taught in specifically allotted time slots through the day for months and then you had three hour exams on every subject. After a few days, each of us got a certain numerical score for each of those subjects.
The process tagged us good students, mediocre students, bad students and hopeless students based on those mysterious scores. We had never read each other, nor read what we were reading (except textbooks). We never even thought about wondering why someone was good or bad. We simply grew to become in awe of the good and disdainful of the bad, completely trusting the system to build us myths of inspiration that we strove to follow with greater efficiency. The teacher was always the fount of wisdom and we were simply distribution channels of knowledge!
Now we share what we read. We share parts of what we read. We share opinions about what we read. We also write and create what we read if we can. Everyone can share, not just ones who have been deemed “good” or “smart” by someone who “knows better.” We can share beyond our schools, communities, countries, generations and other borders bringing down those borders in the process.
Reading cultures are merging. There’s bad sides to homogeneity of course. But, to use an unnecessarily big word, cultural capital is being better distributed. I like that.