Solitary or Social Readers

Recently a local book club leader wrote to explain why she devotes herself so energetically to the group:

…what I love best about the book club meetings, other than talking about books with other people, are hearing peoples' takes on the stories we read. We all lead such different lives, and come from such different backgrounds, (and are at different stages in our lives), that the book usually has different meanings for each of us. It's interesting to hear how many different ways a story can be interpreted, and I usually come away with a better appreciation for what I've read... anyway those are the moments I look forward to, (other than meeting fellow book lovers! What's not to like about that?!

In the Times recently, Motoko Rich takes a slightly contrary view arguing that reading in the era of online book groups, Oprah clubs, Shelfari, and the countless informal book groups that are everywhere these days, has now become “a relentlessly social pursuit.” She notes: “Publishers, meanwhile are fashioning social networking sites where they hope to attract readers who want to comment on books and one another.”

I know individuals who belong to three or four different book groups at the same time and each and every one of them meets somewhere to have a meal before or during their “meeting.” Are they there for the meal, the friendly chit-chat, to flirt or to have a serious discussion about the book they may or may not have read before hand?

But there is a different class of reader as Rich points out who feel “that their relationship with a book, its characters and the author is too intimate to share.” These readers can engage in all the benefits cited by the leader of the local book group for why she likes her group. They too can reflect on the book’s meanings, its relationship with the works or other authors, and read the opinions of those who have reviewed the book and who might have a different take on it or who view the story in a usual way. And all of this can be experienced without the gossip or the meal at the current restaurant of the year.

Rich also concludes that these two (public and private) readers are not mutually exclusive, that readers who prefer to read privately are not necessarily adverse to discussing it publicly, although my hunch is that a group of more than one of two such individuals would be sufficient for them. And perhaps if the club was structured more around the type of reading groups that we usually called seminars or conferences in college or the Book Salons as in Europe during the 19th Century, they might be more likely to become more social readers.

I used to teach at a college where in order to graduate students were required to write a Senior Thesis and then engage in its defense with a group of faculty members. At the time of their defense the students almost always brought trays of food, (baked goods, sandwiches, trays of vegetables and fruits, etc.) and abundant beverages. Did they think all this food would increase the likelihood they would pass?

It was always difficult for me to carry on a coherent discussion munching a chocolate croissant and so I found myself in an awkward position, not knowing what to do with these offerings, since I was never hungry and didn’t much care to snack anyway.

I guess that is why I have always been one of those readers who prefer to carry out the pursuit of reading and what I say about it in a largely, although not exclusively, private fashion. Nonetheless, I remain quite interested in the question of whether the solitary reading experience in some way significantly different than reading without the expectation of discussing it with others