I ran across this somewhere, probably through another blog, though I don’t remember now. Anyway, now we have the ability to connect with people anywhere in the world who may be reading Shakespeare at this particular moment. As I write this post, 242 people are reading Shakespeare, and I even know that 23 are reading Hamlet, mostly in the United States and Europe, but I have seen several readers of Shakespeare in Japan and China over the past few days. Of course, that’s only people who are intrigued enough by this service to sign up.
I’m vaguely interested in the forms of socialization that are associated with web world. Although it comes across as very individualizing–a place of me doing my own thing–in a different way it can be very clubby and group-think oriented, like a group of high school girls who can’t go to the bathroom without four friends. I see this to some degree in what happens with online reading. Over at Book Glutton–so far as I can tell it has yet to take off, but this is the concept in any case–the idea is to read along through a text with a group of friends, giving you the capacity to read together in real time.
I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with this per se. Indeed, it’s sometimes a very good exercise to have a group of students sit together and read the same book silently. It can be a weirdly interesting bonding experience. But rather than being the exception, it’s almost like reading the same thing at the same time as someone else becomes a need in the culture of the web.
Not sure if that’s quite the case, but I can see it everywhere. My daughter is only satisfied being on Facebook if she is at the same time chatting with a dozen of her friends online. WordPress let’s me know how many people are blogging “right now.” I wonder what need this feeds? Are they trying to reassure me that I am not alone here sitting in front of my computer, despite all evidence to the contrary. We’re all in this together.
Does it make a difference to how people read or write, or even affect their interest in reading and writing? I finally got around to joining up at BookGlutton because I thought it would be an interesting experiment in online reading. Trouble was, I couldn’t find groups that were reading anything I was interested in reading. So I didn’t read at all, despite the fact that there were a lot of different books to choose from. Now this is not a hack on BookGlutton–some few of the folks over at Librivox are still PO’d at me for treading on their territory. (Unintended, but nevertheless quite good for the blog stats). At Book Glutton I have the option of trying to form my own group with other people, just didn’t have the time or inclination. But I also wonder whether services like Book Glutton or other things like this will transform the way reading is practiced as a social experience, even affecting what people choose to read. I would bet that something like Amazon’s Kindle will develop similar kinds of capacities in future incarnations. As a consequence, I can easily imagine people choosing not to read a book because no one happens to be reading it at the same moment. No one there to chat with while I read. Five years ago I would have thought this was a fantasy; I’m not so sure it isn’t a present and growing reality.
There’s some historical precedent; in the classical period, reading often took place at social gatherings of the elite, a necessary corollary to reading aloud. What goes around comes around. Maybe fifty years from now reading alone will seems as odd to our culture as reading-as-online-chat seems to me today.