Is Reading Solitary or Social?

I probably drank too much caffeine yesterday and so had a restless night. So I was up for about an hour and read a couple essays in a recent book titled The Edge of the Precipice: Why Read Literature in the Digital Age? edited by Paul Socken. One particular essay caught my attention: “Solitary Reading in an Age of Compulsory Sharing”.  The author extolled the glory of reading as a solitary activity in an era where social media tracks most of our activity (including the books we read if we use vehicles like GoodReads). He worried that linkages between sites like Amazon and Facebook could mean that all the books we purchase could become “updates”, and even the use of e-readers could provide information about our reading habits. Print books purchased offline and read privately preserve that wonderful solitary experience, which he differentiates from loneliness.

As an introvert, I get this. Sometimes, having my nose in a book is the equivalent of posting a sign that says, “Leave me alone!” (though I also find that this often doesn’t work!). More than that, reading as we usually practice it, is a solitary act in the sense that words on a page engage and evoke thoughts and emotions in my inner person–sometimes enjoyment, sometimes perplexity, sometimes intense interest in a novel idea that rearranges my mental furniture. I can be in a coffee shop or alone in the family room and no one knows what is transpiring–unless I tell them.

At the same time, I note that the author of this essay differentiated being solitary from being lonely. I would contend that in fact, reading is never solitary because we are always engaged with another mind, and that is why we are not lonely. Last night while my wife was in dream land, I was mentally engaged in an argument with this essay’s writer. I was alone, yet not alone. While I was the solitary figure in my living room, I could not engage in reading alone–I needed another in order to have someone to read.

And so I would contend that reading, even apart from reading aloud, discussing books in groups, blogging and posting about books, is an inherently social activity, and one of the profoundest because in reading, I enter deeply in the thought world of another. I guess this is where I struggled with the essayist. To me, it seemed to be all about his experience of the book alone. For me, reading is about entering the world of another–someone I may never meet physically–but someone who I’ve become intimately involved with in the sense of entering their thought world, their vision of the world, their arguments. I both do this, and step back and think about what I admire, what I would want to explore more, what I would question.

I also found the writer kind of snarky about social media–particularly the idea of social media monetizing the things we share (which I will concede happens). At least he wasn’t being snarky about social media on social media! Certainly I’ve seen some of the same things he does–the people on GoodReads who never read anything, the mean-spirited reviews on Amazon that substitute attack for critique. Social media, like all our technologies, is a double-edged sword. What I am intrigued with is the project of using social media to foster a community of those who love significant conversations, who want to share what they are reading and thinking. I work in a national organization and I have the chance to interact with colleagues across the country who I may see once a year or less. I’ve had the chance to intersect with like-, and differently-minded bloggers. I’ve heard from total strangers who found a book I reviewed of interest or help to them. And my interest in a book has been piqued by the review of another.

Moreover, I love discussing books with my Wednesday morning book group. My wife and I sometimes read devotional literature aloud together or read aloud on car rides. So I would contend that, apart from the fact that I’m not talking to the human beings around me when I read, reading is an inherently social act, and one that is even richer with the personal and virtual social interactions we might have around our books.

But this brings up a question that might be the subject of a future post: can we be in solitude without books or any other form of external input? This may be one of the greatest challenges for us in an age where we undergo a 24/7 bombardment of media.



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