January 14, 2008KR BlogReadingWriting

Reading Together

Last summer, in preparation for a move, my husband and I took stock of our books. With the help of LibraryThing, we had a digital record of our library. (We are that nerdy.) As I stood looking at the shelves and shelves of them, I realized that many of my books were acquired in a less digital time, before my whims for arcane information could be so easily and endlessly indulged. I used to browse and buy bargain bin treasures (a yellowed history of anatomy and physiology according to the ancient Greeks, for example, or a racy 1940’s Hollywood biography) and lug them with me from apartment to apartment. It wasn’t necessarily that I wanted to read them. It was that I enjoyed the fact that such topics existed, and the book itself was a physical reminder and an entry into a place where I might some day want to hang out, if only for an afternoon.

Now I had to justify the presence of each. Which had been supplanted by the internet? Which could I get fairly quickly from the library, should I need to? Which needed to be in my life as physical objects?

Here’s what I found I wanted to keep:

  • Poetry, fiction, or essays that I might need for immediate reference when writing.
  • Books of monetary value (there were three of these).
  • Totemic embodiments of excellence (I think there were about five of them).
  • Souvenirs, books that I couldn’t quite part with because I associate them strongly with a time or event that was personally significant.

Since I’ve stopped buying books unless I “need” them–that is, unless they promise to fit into the first or third category–there won’t be any more souvenirs. It becomes easier to imagine a time when I couldn’t justify owning books at all.

Joseph Campana’s recent post on the fate of reading credits Ursula LeGuin with the notion that the internet has yet to produce its own literary forms. I’m not entirely sure about this assertion. As a counter example I offer Oni Buchanan‘s remarkable kinetic poem “The Mandrake Vehicles.”

It is written in the internet’s own language. The internet is its natural medium. (Is anyone doing something similar with fiction?)

I agree with LeGuin, though, that what we’re afraid of losing is the culture of reading, the book reviews and best sellers that served as signposts of a mass phenomenon that didn’t actually exist. When Joseph wrote about reading as the vehicle that got him out of a small town, I could relate. I bet many of us could. The book is itself a presence, but a book–one checked out from the local library, say–is also the promise of a greater presence: the community that published and preserved the book, and the community that reads it. Because the internet is by nature ephemeral, because its products are cheap to produce, can even a top flight item like “The Mandrake Vehicles” carry the same promise as a physical book?

I have a friend who is a poet and a fourth grade teacher. She says her class, who play staggeringly realistic video games for hours on end outside of school, are reluctant readers when they are expected to read alone and silently. But when she reads aloud to them — poetry or fiction — they sit in wide-eyed anticipation of the next line and beg for more. Their imaginations are intact, and they don’t need a screen to be interested. With guidance they can discuss what they read, and they can and write in imitation, from stories to odes to acrostic poems.

When she told me this, it seemed apt and relevant to the current anxiety over the future of reading and books. Why would reading together be more compelling than reading apart?

My own childhood reading was the solitary, escapist kind. But like Joseph’s, mine was a family of readers. I didn’t feel especially isolated in the act. It was a part of what “we did,” a part of “who we were.” The fourth graders are asking for their experience of reading to be shared; we are anxious about whether our experience of reading will be shared by future generations. They are asking for their experience to be affirmed by the presence of other readers; we are asking for our experience of reading to be affirmed by the presence of a book. Reading has the power to touch us deeply, and as the markers of that experience shift, my bet is that our literal, animal minds will continue to ask for a tangible culture that tells us our experience of reading is real.