The False Novelty of Making Reading 'Social'


Reading has always had a social dimension, but the promise of new reading services lies in something we don't yet have a name for.


We're told that services like Findings and Readmill "make reading social." Both sites encourage members to post quotations from what they're reading to share with other members. They're similar in purpose, though Readmill places its chief emphasis on books -- and is heavily invested in the iPad as a reading platform -- while Findings feels more browser-centric and encourages its users to clip from online text of all kinds. So do these sites "make reading social"? Well, it depends on what you mean by "reading" and what you mean by "social."

If we define reading relatively narrowly, as what happens when our eyes are actually moving across a page, then social reading only would happen when you're looking at a book that someone else had read and annotated before you, so that you were encountering that reader's responses as you were encountering the book itself. (Amazon allows Kindle readers to view passages in a book that others have underlined, which is the digital version of this experience.)

Of course, if having a book read to you is "reading a book" -- which it surely is -- then that kind of reading is intrinsically social ... but is it less social when a father is reading to his daughter in her bedroom than when, say, an author is reading from her new book to three hundred people in an auditorium? Or more so? Or, and here's the right answer, social in a very different way, such that the word "social" is manifestly inadequate.

And what about if you're being read to by a professional audiobook reader as you're sitting in your automobile in a rush-hour traffic jam? How social is that? Not very, most of us would say, and most of us would be right, because there is no possibility of interaction.

But if we define "reading" more generously, to include not just the moments when our eyes are on the page or the ears attend to a voice, but also the subsequent reflection on what has been read, the story gets more complex still. I'm a literature teacher: I sit in rooms with other people and we talk about books we've read. Is that social reading? Would it be if, instead, I belonged to a book group?

As I said: It depends on what you mean by "reading" and what you mean by "social." Both terms are extremely vague and capable of multiple interpretations. We really need more, and more specific, terms.

So what is it that sites like Findings and Readmill do? I would say that they enable asynchronous interactive digital commentary. That's a mouthful; it's a lot easier to say that they "make reading social." But easier in this case is definitely not better. All these digital possibilities are turning the old and familiar experience of reading on its head, and the language we have to describe the changes hasn't even begun to catch up. It needs to start.

Image: Library of Congress.

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Alan Jacobs is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the honors program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

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