Words With Friends: The Problem of Social Reading May 1st, 2012 We have accepted social media. We have accepted ebooks. Can we now accept their marriage–can we learn to love social reading? “Social reading” is what happens when you connect with others through an ebook or mobile app. You can tweet your annotations as you read James Gleick’s The Information on your nook. On your Kobo, you can read comments left by other readers about that sentence on page 57. On your iPad, you can download Subtext and watch a video by the author, no longer a shadowy absent-presence behind the words. But wait– isn’t reading defined by its very privacy? Is it not to escape the social that we delve into books? Remember when everyone touted “curling up in bed to read a book” as the main reason ebooks would never fly? It seems unseemly to fill our beds with so many people. Maybe. But reading is not, actually, a de facto solitary activity. We just made it seem that way in the twentieth century. Before then–well, Homeric bards spoke to crowds; St. Ambrose shocked other monks when he read words silently rather than out loud to himself, as had always been done; Dickens was read in reading circles, the orator near the candle, the rest listening. So it is no abomination: let’s be like Greeks and chat with each other while we read. However, the field of social reading is crowded and proprietary–your nook and my Kindle can’t talk to each other. Most “social” features have been created top-down, by companies, not devised by readers themselves in an end-user innovation sparked by desire to connect. Nor is it clear what, exactly, people want to be social about: their favorite lines? videos of the author explaining to us her conceit? links to the wikipedia page explaining a reference? Authors are still writing self-contained works they imagine to be bounded between boards–or at least contained within one file–so the social aspect often comes in post hoc, awkwardly. We readers know how to read socially–on the web. For social reading of books to be meaningful, the definition of “book” might need to change. Here’s one definition of “book” I’ve been playing with: prose without links. Think about it–might we imagine two reigning models of reading–linked (or extractive, horizontal) and unlinked (or immersive, vertical)? A problem I see with “social reading” of books is that it asks us to link what we perceive as unlinked. As it were. Also, “social reading,” as it is currently defined, shortchanges the ways in which “traditional” reading, including 20th century private practices, is already social: it forms the body of references, the cultural touchstones, with which we navigate our frames of references, our ways of being with others–”the social.” The history of the book is filled with examples of readers talking to each other: an author comment on a kindle is simply a newfangled quotation mark. I’m a champion of digital forms of reading and writing, but I wonder if “social reading” is both a forced term and something we have been doing all along. comments Nick Valvo replied on May 1st, 2012. I love this piece, Anne. The dixhuitiémiste in me is especially excited by the suggestion that the private mode of reading is a technological byproduct of inexpensive light: gas-driven and then electric. But your proposed definition — ”prose without links” — raises the question of what linking is, especially before 1990 or so. Are the Dickensian readers sharing a candle and a novel in the parlor of an 1860s evening participating in linked reading? I think you’re suggesting they are, and if so, how do the very different material forms this reading took affect its linkedness? It seems to me that what hypertext offers us over and above sociality is a kind of hypotaxis: a structuring of association into nested hierarchies. The preexisting sociability on which such reading is based is probably much less formed. Anne Trubek replied on May 3rd, 2012. You know, Nick, I hadn’t worked my way through my own logic until you posted this–now I’m thinking about pre-digital analogs to links, which is crazy cool and fascinating to ponder. Also, I’m terribly jealous of you getting to be a dixhuitiemiste. Jonathan Armoza replied on May 6th, 2012. Anne and Nick, I would suggest that the analog here is part of the discussion currently taking place about the function of the Internet – how we share knowledge. Pre-1990 links are the reading circle/discussion groups themselves. The Internet so far has been an additive force for breadth of information, and until social reading matures, there is an argument to be made that its alienating/anti-social side effects are a subtractive one. Anne Trubek replied on May 7th, 2012. Jonathan– So if we continue this analogy, what would have been the equivalent of unlinked reading pre-Internet? Did it even exist before gas-lighting, if we continue Nick’s point? Leave a Reply Click here to cancel reply. Name (required) Mail (will not be published) (required) Website Notify me of follow-up comments by email. Notify me of new posts by email.