How reading has become more social

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.

The clerk, one of the pilgrims in Chaucer's Ca...
The clerk, one of the pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury tales (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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!

English: Crowd of spectators buying tickets fo...
Crowd of spectators buying tickets for a Charles Dickens reading at Steinway Hall, 71 East 14th Street, New York Cityhttp://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2002713197 (not Boston, as the title copied from the Library of Congress website erroneously states). Illustration from Harper’s weekly, v. 11, no. 574, 28 December 1867, p. 829. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Chaucer reading his work to the court of Richa...
Chaucer reading his work to the court of Richard II, c. 1400 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

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26 thoughts on “How reading has become more social”

  1. Reblogged this on A Daily Journal of my Comp/Rhet Dissertation and commented:
    Today, one of my colleagues showed my latest blog post (http://dissertationgal.com) to her students. We have given our students an assigment that involves creating their own blog on WordPress and writing one post a week. They also have to comment on three a week.

    She told me that after reading and laughing at my post (it was about writing at a roller rink) the students were a bit confused. They asked, “Does she do this for a grade or for money?” My colleague had to explain that now, especially with blogs, more people are writing and sharing for the Hell of it, not for any monetary reward.

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  2. Today, one of my colleagues showed my latest blog post (http://dissertationgal.com) to her students. We have given our students an assigment that involves creating their own blog on WordPress and writing one post a week. They also have to comment on three a week.

    She told me that after reading and laughing at my post (it was about writing at a roller rink) the students were a bit confused. They asked, “Does she do this for a grade or for money?” My colleague had to explain that now, especially with blogs, more people are writing and sharing for the Hell of it, not for any monetary reward.

    I loved your post!

    Elizabeth
    dissertationgal.com

    Like

  3. I just wanted to let you know I like this post so much I nominated it for the Passionate Communicator Award. It’s so interesting to think about how reading has changed and you explained it very eloquently. I totally understand if you don’t accept these things, but just wanted to put it out there for you 🙂

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  4. Thought-provoking post. The recent rise of the book club is also an example of social reading. It’s funny…I had jotted down a note for a blog I never developed regarding a kindle commercial showing groups of people with their kindles…I thought it was misleading because I didn’t think reading was a social activity, but you have shown that to be a misleading thought on my part!

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    1. Yes, the book club is certainly an imp example of social reading that takes place off of the internet. But the gatherings are certainly helped by the existence of the internet. With regard to your second point, I had also started thinking that reading would become more unsocial with people staring at screens. Then I took a step back and re-thought the scenario and the result is this blog. Thanks for a very insightful comment.

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  5. Well said. I’m not a fan of small talk and it’s something that my day2day life seems to be full of. I’m quite happy for the internet to rescue me from 20 conversations about the weather.

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  6. I love this! You are so right. In some ways, the loss of scribblings in the margins is sad. In other ways, the playing field *is* getting more leveled, people can share over so many borders as long as there is an Internet connection somewhere, and that is really, really cool. I love seeing the bright side that I miss sometimes; thank you for bringing that to me!

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  7. Fabulous post… I enjoy a really good conversation; or at least a good topic..! This is so hard to satisfy in the usual course of my day, be it work or social. The blogosphere allows me to have many such conversations/interludes throughout my day, which is satisfying many of those needs. This does surprise me. I was one of those who thought the Internet could be creating an unsociable tendency within society, and yet for me, this is not the case.
    I haven’t ever been a ‘reader’. Novels, for the most part, don’t catch my imagination. However, ‘real life’ does, and always has. Your term ‘social reading’ is extremely appropriate as applied to me…
    I’m really enjoying your posts. Thanks again for a very stimulating read..!

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  8. When the Harry Potter books really took off, a friend expressed dismay about the pop culture of it all. But when i noted that it’s got kids reading, he stopped and thought about that. But after HP, he reckoned, they won’t read anything else. True, I said, some might not, but some will keep reading. I think eReaders have also pushed out a few more people to read because of the convenience of it.

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    1. I actually have this discussion with my husband quite often. He despairs of the trend of adults reading only the YA genre, thus never challenging themselves beyond those issues and growing; I agree with him to a point but feel it’s better than not reading at all. Same goes for those who read only romance or thrillers or any other “pop” genre. I hope that people mix it up to, but I’m happy they’re reading period.

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