Monday, June 21, 2010

I Reader, By Myself With Others

I recently read an article in the Sunday electronic edition of the New York Times ( ) that talked about something called “social reading”. The article began with the discussion of a feature found on a number of different ereaders. It’s called “popular highlights”. It is a terrible name for a rather interesting feature. This feature makes it possible for the readers of the book to share what they would highlight with other readers. This feature can, of course, be turned off. I didn’t quite know what to make of it at first. I have borrowed books from individuals who have underlined or highlighted sections that they found insightful; but as a rule no one does that with a library book or with a new book except the author.

I then realized I was missing the point.

Popular highlights allow for individuals to see what dozens, hundreds, perhaps thousands of previous readers have determined as being worthwhile. It could take some of the joy of individual discovery out of the reading process; but most of us want to talk to others about books or passages in books that we found to be insightful or luminary. We do that with book groups and we do it over the circ desk. We read reviews and we talk with others about what we have found to be unusual, controversial or an astute understanding of the human condition.

Often times those are some of the attributes we equate with a good read.

In this case, by using this feature we are allowed access to what others have thought as significant. We can choose to agree or we can choose to disagree. But by being aware that others have found this part of the book as being important we get a virtual heads-up. I suspect that many would choose to disable the feature. I am sure I would only utilize it on a subject by subject or author by author basis. And I could always disagree with what others had deemed as significant.

But here are two of the many cruxes of the article: the day of the solitary reader quietly bringing knowledge to him/herself may be over and we learn differently and make greater headway when we learn (read) in a social setting. I have simplified the arguments here and the author of the article did a much better job of explaining these major points.

I had never thought of the reading experience as a social activity before.

There are many types of reading that are very good in a social condition. Poetry is an easy example. What is interesting here is that we could use the social give and take of highlighting as a cue. It is not a discussion per se, because we don’t know why someone has highlighted the point. You still have to work out the why for yourself. What we do know is that someone saw some bit of insight in that section, so we might want to give it a bit more thought. Another interesting aspect of the feature is that sections and what is highlighted might change over time. Highlighted sections may come and go and different sections may have more significance after a second reading.

This feature should not be viewed as another indicator of the end of the world of reading; or as another cobblestone on the road of good intentions. It is not. Nor is it another conspiracy to turn our local library into a downloadable venue without any physical books left in the stacks. I see both the ereader and the popular highlight feature are extensions of the reading experience. And as with using any ereader it is not the same as using a book. It is a different experience. They are not the same; but that is as it should be because you do not want the same experience from reading both a physical book and an ereader.

See you at the Library,

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