Is Reading a Social or Solitary Activity?

That’s an unfair title for the blog post, as obviously there’s isn’t one answer. But after reading the incredibly misleading “E-Books Make Readers Less Isolated,” I felt it necessary to weigh in.

Note the article appears in the Fashion & Style section, not Books or Tech. This is perhaps why there isn’t any distinction made between a dedicated e-reader like the Kindle and a multimedia device like the iPad. When strangers and friends ask to check out my iPad, almost none of them care about the ebook apps. I would argue they are distinctly different devices serving different audiences. One is a reading device, and the other is a media device.

“For many, e-readers are today’s must-have accessory, eroding old notions of what being bookish might have meant. ‘Buying literature has become cool again,’ [Dr. Levinson] said.” Setting aside how insulting this statement is, let’s take the high road: is the article saying ebooks and/or Kindles are cool? iPads? We know iPads are cool, and that has nothing to do with their ability to display ebooks. That’s like saying Solitaire is hip again because the new MacBooks hit the market.

I haven’t equated bookishness or reading literature with solitude since I was a teenager. Partly this is because I was a huge nerd with nobody to discuss Irvine Welsh with. Mostly it’s because these days I find reading literature an immensely social activity: book clubs, author readings, drunken debates about metadata (this happened on Friday, sadly), arguments over a New Yorker review… I feel privileged to live in an environment of like-minded readers. So is reading solitary because I prefer not to be bothered on my subway commute as I tear through a great novel?

I heartily endorse the oft-cited remarks by David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen about the purpose of reading: to pacify loneliness through communion between a writer and a reader. It’s uniquely solitary and social*:

*Yes, this is a video I produced for my job. But I love my job, so it’s all the same thing in the end.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Is Reading a Social or Solitary Activity?

  1. janersays

    Regarding this idea that “buying literature is cool again” – I worry that because ipads, kindles, nooks, etc. eradicate people being able to actually physically see what others are reading – on the train for instance, that for people reading for cultural cache and the cool factor, there’s less incentive to buy books. But I guess this is a small group of people who are probably acting on a subconscious level anyhow.

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