Reading: public vs private

When I started this blog, I had several goals in mind:  I wanted an outlet for my writing (I am a trained journalist, after all), I wanted to “practice” writing book reviews (in the hopes that it will become a career someday), and I wanted to talk about the books I’ve been reading.  I already have several outlets for discussing books–my boyfriend, a fellow English major who also happens to be my best friend, not to mention I work in a bookstore–but I felt that discussing my reading agenda in a public sphere would help me feel like I was part of something bigger.

All this aside, a recent article from The New York Times made me think a little harder about reading, and whether what I still consider a largely private activity has become obscenely public.  I mean, I thought it was private.  Isn’t this why so many bookworms are solitary folk, hidden away in libraries or holed up in comfy armchairs while the rest of the world plays video games?  The act of reading goes on largely in one’s head, our imagination providing the details while we follow along with words on a page.  We are interacting with words, and so unless we’re reading out loud to someone else (which isn’t a bad idea), it’s hard to share this experience with others.  “The pursuit of reading,” Virginia Woolf wrote, “is carried on by private people.”

But times, they are a-chagin’:

Reading might well have been among the last remaining private activities, but it is now a relentlessly social pursuit. Gaggles of readers get together monthly to sip chardonnay and discuss the latest Oprah selection. On fan sites for the Harry Potter and “Twilight” series, enthusiastic followers dissect plot lines, argue over their favorite scenes and analyze characters. Publishers, meanwhile, are fashioning social networking sites where they hope to attract readers who want to comment on books and one another.

Laura Miller, a staff writer for Salon and the author of The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, speculated in the article that it is the more bookish people who tend to fiercely guard their private reading worlds.  “Casual readers, by contrast, are drawn by the social aspects.”

“If you want to build a culture where people who could just as easily watch a movie are going to instead say, ‘Oh, I’m going to read this Tracy Chevalier book or ‘The Kite Runner,’ ” Ms. Miller said, “then they do need that kind of stuff like the book groups and discussion guides.”

This brings me back to my last post, in which I lamented the passing of a literary generation and how there seems very little with which to replace it.  In order to catch up with the Internet, publishing houses are turning authors into celebrities, attaching to them all the paraphenelia that accompanies the cult of modern celebrity.  Twitter, Facebook fan pages, author blogs, chat rooms (which seem so 1999 by now), Hollywood-esque book “trailers”…this goes way beyond the simple discussion guide found in the back of the book.   All of this is done in order to attract even the most unlikely reader, which can be a good thing.  Unfortunately, making books “trendier” also attracts a transient audience, doomed to pass on to the next fad once this “reading thing” becomes boring.

It’s for this reason that I don’t trust a lot of the hoopla surrounding modern publishing.  The most important relationship is the one between the reader and the text; nothing else really matters.  Not even authors matter too much, a fact affirmed by poets and novelists again and again.  It’s also for this reason I haven’t bought into the hype surrounding e-readers; if the story is the only thing that matters, why does the format matter?  Paper works just as well as computer screens in this, the most simple reading culture.  Reading, then, should be one of the most intimate, private acts one performs.  Magic is unfolding in your mind, and with your imagination to keep you company, others make things too crowded.

But as readers, we love to share this experience with others.  Look at me.  So how do we balance our need for discussion and interpretative guidance (say, if you’re reading Ulysses outside a college classroom), with our desire for imaginative privacy?  Does preferring the private sphere make you a “better reader?”  Does dwelling solidly in the public sphere make you appear shallow?  These are tough questions.  As for myself, I’ve found that surrounding myself by bookish people on Twitter has made me a more informed reader, while writing about my thoughts here has helped me think more thoroughly about books I read “for fun.”  However, I find much of the “stuff” surrounding books in popular culture unnecessary and silly.  If you want to read a book, read it.  You don’t need Oprah, discussion guides, author blogs or chat rooms to enjoy a good book.  And if you do…well, then you’re not trying hard enough.


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