At night, I find incredible pleasure in my Kindle. I pick up all 7.8 ounces of it, palm it, turn out the lights. Then, the only physical act required is a small swipe of my finger across an index-card-size piece of glass. I can choose to go almost anywhere, as long as I am willing to pay.
The Kindle offers the purest form of immersive reading I have ever experienced. There is something narcotic about it. As scholar Alan Jacobs writes, “Once you start reading a book on the Kindle—and this is equally true of the other e-readers I’ve tried—the technology generates an inertia that makes it significantly easier to keep reading than to do anything else.” The compulsion to keep reading stems partially from the lack of distractions: E-books, thin, gray, and under-designed, shear off the blurbs and author bios and test-marketed book-jacket covers.
But when I am reading on my Kindle, I am not alone. While swiping my fingers across the pages of Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, for example, every dozen pages or so, I come across underlined sentences and above the words a tally: “513 Highlights.” That refers to the number of people who have pressed their fingers against the glass at the same point in the text.
The Kindle has several such built-in but optional features that fall under the label of “social reading.” Social reading is basically what we have been trained to do while we read online. Newspapers and magazines have taught us to like, share, and retweet what we read, and URL links have us accustomed to switching between various texts. Why, the producers of social reading are suggesting as they unveil new gimmicks, should we stop with articles? Books should get into the fray, too.
There are two main types of social reading. One kind, occurring after the reader has finished a book, is familiar to us—Facebook book groups and Twitter chats are two of many examples; although the term assumes a digital platform, these activities are updated versions of book clubs or classroom discussions. Other features are newer, bringing interaction into the text in a way that, like a hyperlink in an online news story, shows up inside the book. 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, who is no longer a shadowy absent-presence behind the words.
Back at the Kindle webpage, I can see the most highlighted Kindle passage of all time, this sentence from Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games sequel Catching Fire: “Because sometimes things happen to people and they’re not equipped to deal with them” (17,784 highlights). The most highlighted book of all time is The Holy Bible. (Most popular passage: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”) The No. 2 book is Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. (Most popular passage: “Pretend to be completely in control and people will assume you are.”) The second most highlighted line is the first sentence from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
Bob Stein, director of the Institute for the Future of the Book, has created a matrix breaking down the two main categories of social reading into a more complex taxonomy organized by whether discussion occurs offline or on and whether it is ephemeral or persistent, synchronous or asynchronous, or just plain face-to-face. (The Kindle webpage is what he would call asynchronous, or informal, social reading.) Stein’s institute has further developed CommentPress, an open-source software that allows readers to enter comments within a text, “turning a document into a conversation.” Stephen Duncombe, associate professor of media and culture at New York University, has used CommentPress to create a free online version of Thomas More’s Utopia “open to read, open to copying, open to modification” and published by the institute’s platform, Social Book. Stein and Duncombe are on the front lines of social reading for scholarly and pedagogical purposes, archiving what had previously been ephemeral discussions into documents as persistent as the Talmud. Social Book allows for fuller discussions among readers than does Kindle; with enormous potential for academia, it permits students and scholars to gather within a text, instead of, say, talking about it while sitting in rows, books on their desks.
Social reading sounds newfangled. But looked at another way, it’s not so new. Reading, historically, was “social” for far longer than it has been private. The concept of reading as primarily an individual, solo act—which the modifying “social” in “social reading” assumes—is a modern phenomenon. Homeric poetry and other oral genres were recited to crowds for centuries before the notion of reading came around. The most beautiful depiction of learning in Western art may be Raphael’s School of Athens, which shows Socrates speaking as disciples surround him, listening and taking notes.
After writing became more widespread, it was often a prompt for speaking, something one used as an aid in orating, reciting, or declaring to others. When Saint Augustine watched Ambrose read a book without moving his lips or making any sounds, he was shocked: Until about the eighth century, most people read by reading words out loud. No one was curling up with the large, bulky, vellum-and-wooden books that were kept chained to desks in monasteries.
This kind of “social reading” continued throughout most of the Middle Ages, as scribes copying manuscripts assumed readers would enunciate the words they saw on the page. Written texts developed from and aided oral communication, and since there are no commas or capital letters in speech, there were initially no spaces between words, no lower-case letters, and no punctuation in manuscripts, either. THEIRSENTENCESLOOKEDLIKETHIS.
As late as the 19th century, Victorian readers could still often aptly be called “listeners” as they sat in chairs in a circle lit by candlelight, with one person reading out loud the copy of the latest triple-decker installment of, say, a Dickens novel. Even for us moderns, reading can be construed as an inherently social act, not as in “sitting in a room with others” but as in “together, alone.” Reading can be one of the most profound encounters a human can have, revealing the inherently connective tissue that is human consciousness. As David Foster Wallace put it: “Fiction, poetry, music, really deep serious sex, and, in various ways, religion—these are the places (for me) where loneliness is countenanced, stared down, transfigured, treated.”
But here’s the thing: Even with history and theory behind me, I do not want to see those Kindle Highlights on my screen. Not because I am averse to the digital or the social. This has nothing to do with technology.
It is not “private reading” I crave. It is—as long as we are coining terms—unlinked reading. Ironically, or perhaps appropriately, we may need a digital-native term to best describe the varieties of reading now available to us. Unlinked reading is the kind that requires of me deeper attention and allows me to ruminate. It is engrossing—a “curling up with” a book that has to do not with paper and ink but with experience.
We need both kinds of reading. Social—I mean, linked—reading returns us to a long tradition in the history of the book. Academics who are exploring it for classroom texts are enriching age-old pedagogies. Access to what others deemed important to highlight or to conversations about a text in real time also has a democratizing element. The Amazon Kindle page is like a high-level, crowd-sourced CliffsNotes, a cheat sheet for America circa 2013, a fount of data about our ambitions, fears, God, and gods.
But we need unlinked reading, too. What I crave when I pick up my Kindle is absorption, to be inside another world, floating in the flow of narrative or argument. Once so immersed, freed from the existential problems of constant contact, and the narcissistic silo-ing of small experience, I can think hard or feel deeply—pleasure and intellectual work at once. What can I say? I am a modern.