Reading is a quiet and solitary experience for me. I open my book in print or on a screen and immediately immerse myself in that world. I might look up now and again to share a comment with my husband/friend/relative sitting nearby. But generally when I’m reading, I’m in a world of my own, so completely absorbed that I’m oblivious to the passage of time.
Some academics however, are trying to get me — and you — to change and embrace the idea that our experience of texts can be enhanced if we became more social readers. Social reading can mean different things — to the manufacturers of the Kindle for example, it describes the function where the Kindle reader keeps a record of your highlighted passages and aggregates them with those of anonymous others so that you can see which passages have generated the most interest.
But for academics, this isn’t social reading. Nor does the term mean going on-line and chatting about a book via Twitter or Facebook or on sites like Goodreads. Nor do they mean the conversation you might have at the coffee machine or in a book club meeting because such casual discussions tend to peter out fairly quickly and rarely get beyond the superficial in their view. What the academics are interested in is a deeply immersive group–based collaborative process that happens on-line. It can involve several readers or even hundreds. All of them read the same text, post comments on it and respond to other people’s comments. Now you might think that’s what you’re doing when you join a ‘read-a-long’ and it’s true this is a fairly simple example of social reading. But for a more sophisticated approach — and the one the academics are most excited about — you’d need to get involved in a synchronous reading where people are reading and commenting on the same text simultaneously.
I’d never heard of this concept of social reading until recently when I joined an online course run by Coursera about ‘Reading in a Digital Age’. Apparently social reading is one of six strategies we could employ to engage with a text (see below for the list of strategies).
The Golden Notebook experiment is being held up as the leading example of this kind of social reading. This is where seven women all read the novel The Golden Notebook by the Nobel Prize winning author Doris Lessing and they made comments on the text as they made their progress over a period of six weeks. If you go to the Golden Notebook experiment website you’ll see that these readers engaged in what’s called ‘close reading’ and they used a dynamic margin where they added their reactions to the text as they went along.
Other platforms have developed that try to do something similar but not in such a closed group environment. Glose is another platform offering a place to engage with other readers – you choose from their selection of books (some free, some you have to buy), read them on any device and then you can highlight/comment etc. I’ve dipped into this but haven’t been that wowed by it – the choice of free books is limited to the classics (because they are out of copyright) and of the few texts I’ve added to my stream I can see a lot of people highlighting passages but hardly any comments. So how does this really let me ‘engage’ with other readers as the platform developers claim is the benefit? To me this is nothing more than the highlight function on my Kindle. There is no deep or extended conversation going on here as the proponents of social reading would have us believe is the future.
CommentPress and DigressIt are plug-ins for WordPress sites that that lets your readers comment paragraph by paragraph in the margins of a text. Since I don’t have a self-hosted WordPress site I can’t get these to work so have no idea how useful these plug-ins are. ReadUps is a web-based that lets group of readers discuss a particular piece of text – for example if I wanted to get your reactions to this post i could create a new ReadUp, invite you to join (you use your Twitter account to do this) and then you’d be able to add reactions etc in the margin alongside the original text (rather than in the comments underneath). I can set a time limit of up to 2 months for the discussion. The founder Travis Alber said in an interview that the idea was to provide a platform to enable readers to do what they love doing – discussing a book. If anyone fancies having a go at this, let me know and I’ll set one up as an experiment.
Apparently this form of social interaction is getting traction. Some teachers have used the platforms as a way to extend the classroom discussion instead of bringing it to a halt at the door. At the University of North Carolina for example one class held a week-long discussion about An Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce which resulted in more than 500 comments.
The ability to carry out a conversation in the margin turns out to be particularly useful for scholars who are using it to conduct new forms of open peer review. MIT Press use it for example to get feedback on a book by Noah Wardrip–Fruin called Expressive Processing and MediaCommons did something similar with Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence. I can see how much more efficient it would be to get all comments and reactions stored in one place instead of sending out a document as an email attachment and getting individual reponses which then have to be collated. But you can already do that in a number of standard word-processing packages so I’m struggling to see the benefit of a another web-based platform other than its just easier to read comments in a margin.
So I’m still not convinced that these examples really demonstrate that a collaborative practice of social reading truly enhances our understanding of literary texts. Maybe its too early to come to an opinion one way or another and more experimentation would need to be done but from what I’ve seen of the ‘commercial’ sites, there is a long way to go before this becomes a mainstream idea.
What types of social reading are there?
If you’re interested in learning more about social reading take a look at an essay by Bob Stein, the founder of the Institute for the Future of the Book. The essay is called ‘A Taxonomy of Social Reading: A Proposal’.
Six reading strategies
- Hypertext reading: essentially this is what we do whenever we look up some info on a web page and follow hyperlinks to move rapidly to other texts, to images and sounds.
- Close reading: if you’ve ever followed any academic program on literature, you’ll be very familiar with this strategy. It’s where you ignore all historical, social, political, and biographical contexts and zoom in on the words on the page, teasing out all the subtleties of the literary forms, and devices and structures that make up a poem, a play, or a novel.
- Distant reading: This is a relatively new concept introduced by an Italian scholar called Franco Moretti. It’s the direct opposite of close reading. Instead of focusing on individual literary texts, distant readers survey, analyse, and describe hundreds, even thousands of literary texts to identify general patterns and large scale historical developments across centuries and national borders.
- Surface reading: Also a relatively new approach, surface reading
don’t look at what is in the book – but at the stuff the book is made from; it’s physical format if you like. For surface readers, it not only makes a great difference, whether we’re reading a print book or an e-book. It also makes a great difference, whether we’re reading, say, a Shakespeare play in a folio edition, a leather bound first edition, a 21st century cheap reprint, a hardback, a paperback, whether we read any play, novel, or poetry collection in whatever kind of form.
- Historical contextualisation: Another standard element of the toolkit of literary analysis, this strategy looks outside of the text itself and to the historical context in which it was written. How does it draw on contemporary events, how does it fit into social debates at that time; how does it give expression to the zeitgeist at the moment of its creation?
- Social reading: a collaborative way of reading and discussing texts on line