Reading Together, Reading Alone

Steven Berlin Johnson’s recent Wall Street Journal article on how the e-book will change reading practices had me racing to my blog before I’d even finished it.  Building from a moment of recognition (an “aha moment”) in an Austin coffeehouse, in which he “put down” the nonfiction book he was reading on his Kindle to purchase and start reading a novel.  Within minutes, Johnson had started reading Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, “shelving” the other book.

As my use of scare-quotes illustrates, the Kindle may very well change the metaphors we use to describe shifting our attention from one text to another.  If I switch books on a Kindle, am I really “putting something down?” More to the point, Johnson interprets this moment as a model for the new ways of reading that may be on the verge of taking place in the era of Google Books and the Amazon Kindle, and I think–at least on an impressionistic level–Johnson’s argument has a number of strengths (note: I still haven’t had an opportunity to test-drive a Kindle or iPhone).  He’s certainly right to observe that the ability to search our libraries will affect how we do research.  I’ve already found myself using a quick Google Book or Google Scholar search to track down certain concepts.  More often, I’ve used delicious or some other tool to manage ideas or articles that I want to revisit, but having access to books as well, via search tools or some other mechanism, would change even further how I write and research.

But the claim that sent me scurrying to read Johnson’s article, which I can’t recommend enough, is the idea that reading will be transformed from a fundamentally private activity to a more public one:

Think of it as a permanent, global book club. As you read, you will know that at any given moment, a conversation is available about the paragraph or even sentence you are reading. Nobody will read alone anymore. Reading books will go from being a fundamentally private activity — a direct exchange between author and reader — to a community event, with every isolated paragraph the launching pad for a conversation with strangers around the world.

Johnson compares the act of reading on a Kindle to the “public” practices of blogging, where bloggers read, annotate, and mull over the writing of others.  There’s something incredibly enticing here, at least for me.  While Johnson speculates that our attention to any single linear narrative might wane (a debatable claim), the engaged audience he imagines here would seem ideal for scholarly readers and writers.  And as the book itself is reimagined as an object to be cited and circulated online, it potentially creates room for new forms of scholarship and writing.

But I do find myself puzzling over his claim that reading currently is a “fundamentally private activity.”  In fact, reading as I have experienced it, has always been a complex interweaving of public and private tendencies, never fully reaching either extreme.  In my literature classes, my students and I read passages aloud in the classroom.  Once we’ve read a couple of stories or poems, the classroom reading practices inform how my students prepare. Discussions with scholars at academic conferences shape my own reading habits. Book clubs, virtual and physical, mix up the public/private distinction as well.  Yes, the novel has typically been associated with solitude, but even when we read alone, we do so through the lenses of others.  And, given that I could now “find” books from my laptop, the physical–presumably semi-public–activity of going to the library seemingly becomes less necessary.

Johnson also sees changes in how books are authored, organized, indexed, and sold.  I think he’s right that some books may be sold on a per chapter basis (maybe along the lines of an iTunes model) and that authors may write with search engines in mind (and Alex Halavais’s cautions about the emerging “search engine society” are crucial here), that citations will serve as a form of currency. These issues are certainly central to some of the conversations that have been taking place in the last couple of years at scholarly resources such as MediaCommons (where I’m an advisory board member), so Johnson’s comments are useful.

In general, Johnson’s article puts together some useful questions about the future of the book.  It’s not difficult for me to imagine that my second book will be significantly different stucturally than my first one, in part thanks to these new digital tools.


  1. Mike Said,

    April 22, 2009 @ 11:40 am

    Hey Chuck, I share this enthusiasm for the transformation of book reading into something more public and networked, but a lot of IP issues still need to get straightened out before any of this can happen in a meaningful way. For more on the IP issue, see this response to Johnson from Kottke

    As I have been working on my own book I have often wished it were a web document instead of/in addition to a printed volume, but too many institutional forces stand in the way of publishing a web document (freely accessible, with links, video, etc. — not just a pdf version), and institutions are slow to change. Even the new media enthusiasts like Shirkey and Jarvis are bundling their ideas into dead-tree books. Maybe not as much has changed as we think?

  2. Chuck Said,

    April 22, 2009 @ 12:04 pm

    Good points, Mike. The IP issues are huge. I certainly thought about them when a version of my page proofs unexpectedly (and unintentionally, it turned out) showed up on Google books. Kottke’s right to be skeptical, for a number of reasons, but I’ve been thinking about how my writing practices in my first book were informed by the research methods I used, and I like the idea of thinking about how reading practices might be changed as well.

  3. McChris Said,

    April 22, 2009 @ 12:25 pm

    The claim that reading is “fundamentally private” might be a claim too strong, but I would certainly situate reading more in the private sphere. The first thing that came to mind is Radway’s Reading the Romance where she describes how romance readers used the books instrumentally as a means to find private or personal time amidst the family. In this case, reading becomes an activity to make the private sphere even more private, withdrawing from the family into the personal.

    The other thing that came to mind is Raymond Williams’ notion of “mobile privatisation,” where television injects the public sphere into the home through synchronous transmission. (It seems like it should be “private mobility…”) Anyway, TV is perhaps more public since viewers of that era would choose from the same three or four programs and watch them at the same time.

    Just to throw in another probably unproductive thought is that in the histories of literacy I’ve learned mass literacy arises with the emergence of a middle class. Since one of the markers of middle class lifestyles is a fetishization of the private, perhaps reading for pleasure (or in the service of immaterial labor) is so tied with middle-class-ness that it connotes the private in our imagination of reading.

  4. Chuck Said,

    April 22, 2009 @ 1:47 pm

    Yeah, I had some of these ideas in the back of my mind as I was reading Johnson’s article. My knowledge of Radaway isn’t as fresh, so I’d forgotten her discussion of how romance reading allowed women (usually) to retreat further into the domestic/private space.

    I was not thinking as explicitly about Williams, but his notion of mobile privatization, especially if you map it onto the idea “middle-classness” in your following paragraph, is helpful in unpacking my objection to the idea of reading as “fundamentally private.”

    In retrospect, I’m thinking that I overreacted a bit to some of the ideas in the Johnson article.

  5. d. Said,

    April 22, 2009 @ 4:46 pm

    Kottke’s right. I can’t believe I never really thought it through before, but books are going to hit the same battles as film and music. Also- no more used books coupled with some strong DRM and RIAA tactics = a college textbook publishers paradise. A day may soon be coming when students are sued for sharing (or pirating) textbooks.

  6. Jill Walker Rettberg Said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 8:13 am

    Thanks for the links to Johnson’s article – these are issues I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. I think perhaps there’s more a myth of reading being private, as there have indeed always been examples of public/social reading. Yet reading can certainly be a way of demarcating a private sphere – I think of the way my almost-teenaged daughter puts walls up around herself when she’s had enough of the rest of us by demonstratively reading a book, or the way you can create a private space for yourself on a bus or train or aeroplane by “hiding in a book”.

    Book historian Roger Chartier wrote in “The Practical Impact of Writing” that the invention of silent reading in many ways established the idea of a private sphere in opposition to the public or social sphere: “…the increasingly common practice of silent reading, which fostered a solitary and private relation between the reader and his book, were crucial changes, which redrew the boundary between the inner life and life in the community.” He calls “the privatization of reading” one of the major cultural developments of the early modern era. Consider, for instance, that libraries were designed for quiet and not for conversation: “The library is a place to retreat to, a place from which the world can be seen – but the reader remains invisible.”

    Not much like blogging, twittering, wikipedia edits and google searches, where anonymity may be more or less possible but invisibility is impossible.

    Anyway, interesting questions!

  7. Jill Walker Rettberg Said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 8:16 am

    Oh, I commented without reading other comments – thanks for the Radway reference, McChrist! In histories of literacy that I’ve read I’ve seen religion rather than the middle class referenced as the major driving force for literacy – maybe I’ve concentrated on Northern Europe where the protestants wanted everyone to be able to read the bible, though. Weirdly Scandinavians could read en masse a century before they could write en masse – the church didn’t think writing was a useful skill to teach the masses…

    Perhaps they learnt to write when they became middle class.

  8. Chuck Said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 8:30 am

    Yeah, I realize now that I overstated things considerably. My only real objection was to the characterization of reading as “fundamentally” private. I like Chartier’s work quite a bit, so now my blog entry seems a little too glib.

    I’m as capable as anyone of hiding behind a book in order to retain my privacy in public (on airplanes and subways, etc), so in that regard I wonder if Johnson’s comments about the Kindle significantly changing that private-public dynamic are simply off the mark?

    Rushing off to teach, so I’ll try to respond with a little more clarity later.

  9. McChris Said,

    April 29, 2009 @ 12:28 pm

    I thought I would point you to another post that touches on the new informationalized reading that Johnson describes. I guess it’s redundant to call reading “informationalized,” but I wanted to use something other than public, and I’m using it in the sense that Castells uses it to describe social phenomena that are represented and monitorable in information networks.

  10. Chuck Said,

    May 3, 2009 @ 1:15 pm

    Thanks for the tip. I’m becoming increasingly wary of the overuse of the term “public,” so that seems helpful.

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