Reading is often assumed to be a quiet, sedentary, solitary pursuit. If you want it to be that – if you want some peace, a sit-down, a break from socialising with others – then reading can certainly be an activity for you and you alone. But in fact, reading has a long history of being a social activity, something to share with others.
Think, for a moment, of the old tradition of reading at the fireside. Sometimes this was done quietly, individually; but often a family member read aloud to a group. Watch a period drama, for example, and you may see a group of women sitting together, one reading while the others sew – and periodically the reading halts as the women discuss the content of the book. Early schooling quickly adopted reading as a group activity as well – children read aloud, and discussed text in groups. And of course the bedtime story has long been an essential element of a loving wind-down routine for families the world over.
Today, the concept of reading as a social activity is stronger still. A key part of educational syllabi is to encourage children to read together and to discuss stories and non-fiction texts. Book groups have soared in popularity – people are coming together to share books and their opinions in all sorts of places, from homes to coffee shops, and across all manner of genres as well.
But it is the connectivity and functionality afforded by technology that is creating the most exciting social reading developments. Sites like Goodreads are helping readers come together to discuss books and share recommendations. Anyone can share their thoughts on a book online, posting reviews on a blog or on one of the many review-sharing sites. And how about reading a book together online? SocialBook is a reading platform that allows small groups to read a book online and ‘talk’ about that book through threaded conversations that appear in the margins of the book. Bob Stein, consultant with the Institute for the Future of the Book, exemplified the concept inThe Bookseller:
[A] New York high school teacher asked the students in her advanced Spanish literature classes to read their assignments in SocialBook… they are now nearly halfway through the text, with more than 2,400 comments among the four of them. They are using the margins for many things — creating a rich glossary of terms and concepts that are unfamiliar to contemporary Spanish speakers, noting points for clarification, and discussing the wide range of historical and literary questions that this seminal novel raises. This adds up to an impressive example of collaborative reading and thinking.
Clearly, there are all sorts of possibilities here. Not only could you read a book and recommend it to a friend: you could annotate the book and then read your friend’s comments.
What all these trends towards making reading a social activity come down to is this: we don’t just want to read; we want to talk about what we read. We want to share our ideas, our opinions and our reactions. As Angela Carter said, ‘Reading a book is like re-writing it for yourself.’ As a writer, I find this very exciting. Because we write in the hope that we will make readers think, feel, react. Novelist John Cheever wrote: ‘I can’t write without a reader. It’s precisely like a kiss – you can’t do it alone.’
Making reading a social activity means that neither the writer nor the reader is alone. The words on the page are connectors that bring people together and spark sociability. Books aren’t just for people – books unite people.