Reading is Lonely, Reading is Social

Reading is Lonely

Reading can be an intensely lonely activity. Curled up on a couch, wrapped in a blanket, deep in a book, the world falls away. Sometimes we may look up from the pages as if waking from a dream, unsure of where we are, vividly disoriented.

This is as it should be. Reading as disconnection, a distinct kind of un-networkedness as we are in a sense hardwired only to the book itself. It’s an experience that is perhaps even more valuable in today’s hyper-networked world than ever before. We read best while on vacation where the connections are otherwise poor.

The solitary vision of reading is only the first stage of many in the literacy process. We have to do something with that loneliness, that alienation, of reading.

Marginal notes have long played a role in mitigating that loneliness. We may forget the presence of the pen sometimes in our immersion in the other world of a book. But pens and highlighters can serve as hatchets of sorts with which to create a blaze, so that we can find our way out and so that we find our way back.

With annotation we locate ourselves in what we are reading, mark trails through the dense forests of pages, and map texts in relation to one another, producing fragmented atlases of our own literary history.

While we often think of marginalia as intensely personal or private, part of that solo experience of reading, raw thought never to be shared or spoken, as Sam Anderson notes, the practice of annotation has always already been social. Why blaze a trail if we don’t plan to show that path to others or expect others to follow?

To slightly tweak Anderson’s central trope in his New York Times essay, don’t we all long to find someone else wandering in the text, lost like ourselves in that strange and beautiful world of a book?

Reading is Social

For me, the first impulse after finishing a good read, finding myself back in the real world but suddenly unsure of foot, is to talk to somebody about it. To share my experience and listen the thoughts of others. To compare notes, my annotations as a kind of map.

In writing this post I was reminded of a trailer for the 1999 film Minus Man–a disappointment from what I remember, but one of my favorite trailers of all-time. It consists entirely of a conversation between two moviegoers who have just attended a screening of the film. Not a single shot from the movie itself appears in the preview as if to say that the discussions that a work of art occasions are as important (perhaps more!) than those cultural objects themselves.

The “social reading” platforms that Jennifer Howard features in her Chronicle leverage annotation technology to bring discussion into texts themselves and enable readers to meet inside books in the highly networked way that Anderson imagines. Indeed, she describes this emergent technology through an appropriately spatial metaphor:

Online, a book can be a gathering place, a shared space where readers record their reactions and conversations. Those interactions ultimately become part of the book too, a kind of amplified marginalia.

I love the emphasis on place in Howard’s description of the social reading experience. For me it evokes coffee shops and barrooms so central to my own personal intellectual growth. As a teacher, of course, it reminds me of the physical space of the classroom. These are the places where the otherworldly experience of reading gets grounded back into the everyday.

Howard seems skeptical that such a technology would be desirable for a general reader beyond the classroom. While Anderson, not an educator but a book critic for the New York Times, longs for such an intimate, almost promiscuous, social experience of reading.

In any case we’ve come a long way from that opening image of the reader lost in the other world of a book. Now well-trodden paths exist that easily orient us and determine our direction in interpreting a text. So does the connectedness of social reading eliminate that valuable if isolating experience of reading?

Both isolation and community are vital parts of the reading experience, both necessary in developing critical literacy, perhaps to varying degrees with different readers, in different contexts, and reading of different texts. Above all, it is the agency of the reader that is central to the pedagogy of annotation. Remember you can just click that eyeball on the Hypothes.is sidebar and this conversation will be between just you and me.

To Respond:

Please feel free to respond to this post by annotating it using Hypothes.is. Be sure to join the MiddAnnotate group and select that group before beginning your annotation. (If you have questions about how to do that, take a look at these tutorials.)

Please also read and annotate Howard’s “With Social Reading Projects, Books Become Places to Meet” and Anderson’s “What I Really Want is Someone Rolling Around in the Text” to engage with their ideas about collaborative annotation directly. Again, be sure to post your annotation to the MiddAnnotate group–in the case of the Anderson piece there’s a vibrant public discussion as well. When you annotate using the MiddAnnotate group, everyone in that group will be able to see the articles and sites you’ve annotated right from the group home page.