It may come as a surprise to know that I once I asked that everyone give me a copy of their favorite book as a gift for my birthday. Reading in this way—to get to understand a person better—might differ from a commonly accepted notion: reading as a solitary act—because, in some sense, reading is a solitary act. A large chunk of the work is done alone. But I don’t think that’s where it stops, or much less where it starts, either. I think there’s a way to look at the way we interact with books and each other to see how reading is, in many ways, an important social act.
Books bring people together: increasingly, due to the internet, this is becoming more and more obvious, but also more and more accessible. Goodreads is a website that literally defines itself as the “world’s largest social network for readers,” but also celebrity book clubs are on the rise—from the likes of Florence Welch to Emma Watson, influential people are using their platforms to find a way to strengthen the tie between reading and readers.
But it’s interesting: I sort of think there is a way to look at reading in a way that is similar to how Instagram functions. Taking a picture of yourself alone is a solitary act. Posting it on the internet is when it gets social. Parse it up like this and maybe approaching a book is similar—the act of reading is done alone, but posting about it online or telling someone to read it or even having read it at the hands of someone else’s recommendation—that takes you towards people.
But maybe not even just the act of reading is solitary. It’s important first to think about what we mean when we say “social media”. If it’s the combined definitions of the words “social” (a group of people, an organization, consisting or composed of people associated together for friendly interaction or companionship) and “media” (The main means of mass communication, regarded collectively), could that not be a book? It is also important to understand that it is impossible to separate what we read from why we read it: stories impact stories. In her book, “Reading As A Social Activity,” Mari Noda explains that “our interaction with what we read is also influenced by the set of stories we share with other members of our culture.” How we read things is changed by who we are when we read them.
So how we interact with books can be an act of empathy: we bring something to it – ourselves, our experiences, shaped by the world we live in. In “The Semiotics of Sex,” an essay by Jeanette Winterson, she explains what I mean when she says that “learning to read is more than learning to group the letters on a page. Learning to read is a skill that marshals the entire resources of the body and mine…I mean the ability to engage with a text as you would another human being.”
I think it’s important that we tell these stories and that we talk about reading in this way. That we see reading as something that can bring people together instead of a consistent notion that reading is some sort of locked-up-alone way of escapism from reality; fiction or non-fiction, it can actually be a way of engaging with reality. Reading is often done alone (past the charming moments of bedtime stories before we can read), but it doesn’t exist alone.
Maybe there is another way that I could’ve learned everything about my mom that I learned from reading her favorite books she gave me that year for my birthday. Maybe a conversation would’ve done. But it feels otherwise; there was something magical about sitting down and reading her copy of J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, knowing that it was a way of extending a conversation. I could’ve had a conversation with her, I suppose. But we had a conversation via the book instead. I brought my life experience into that book when I read it because it’s impossible for me to look at the world any other way. And I did it with the knowledge that she did the same, years ago. Books brought information about us together. Because they can do that.