The Social Experience of Reading

by Adam Charles

Reading is undoubtedly a personal affair. Sitting engrossed in an internalised world created from images hinted at by the static words on the page in front of you. It is a solitary and introverted entertainment medium. Perhaps it’s even a bit anti-social as you ignore the reality around you in favour of one created by your imagination, by the mental connections and neurons sparked into life by the story in front of you.

This is what I used to think, but now I’m convinced that it’s possibly one of the most social activities you can spend your time doing, a truly interactive experience. Unlike other mediums of entertainment it is so multi-dimensional that it’s going to be hard to condense why I’ve come to believe this in this relatively short article. Here goes…

The experience of discovering what to read is undoubtedly a social one. Whether you’re an old-school word of mouth person or into discovering new books through the internet on the various websites, forums and blogs out there. Not only that but when buying a book I always actively search for comments or feedback either from bookstore people or comments posted on the web; thereby connecting with people I would have no other reason to have spoken to or have interactions with, people I would probably never have met in any other circumstance other than my search for that next good read.

Talking through where you’re up to with the people that recommend the book is also social. There’s an unquantifiable number of occasions that I’ve discussed where I’m up to with someone who has already been through the story, trying to second-guess the story, to predict what happens next. They have the insight and through your conversation with them you’re reliving the events of the book, not as static ink blobs on a page, but in the real world.

I’m passionate about passing on books that have inspired me. Pretty much every book that I’ve read I have recommended to at least a few people, and at most everyone I meet! It is at this point that the cycle begins again – you become the person with the omniscient insight into the story, as they try to guess what’s going to happen. I often try to (as surreptitiously as possible) throw them off the scent, because the discovery of unwinding events in any book is one of the most compelling entertainment experiences I’ve ever found. Again, the words transubstantiate into living subject matter.

Some of us even hunger for reading as a Social Experience so much that they feel inspired to join reading groups and discussion groups the world over. In every town and city you can find them, diligently reading with the additional motive of future conversation with other people, face-to-face.

However, although you may sit reading alone, arguably you’re sharing that experience with every other person that has picked up that book; every other person who has entered that world throughout it‘s published life. Your experience and interpretation of the story is likely to be different to anyone else’s- despite the words on the page not changing from person to person.  Each individual creates the universe for the finite characters and events of each book to play out their story, and it is this that I think links everyone who has ever read any particular book.  It is a shared experience, and I like to think – perhaps rather oddly – that the book itself has its own memory and knows everyone who has read it.

Books create conversation, ideas and discussion about meaning, form, and an endless array of different thoughts around their content. They, through a collection of ordered twenty-six symbols, bring people together; can make them think differently and often give a different shade to this crazy world we inhabit. They can make us look slightly alternatively at this spinning rock of existence as it makes its way through space and time. Ultimately, even though reading is done alone, in your comfy chair in the corner of the living room, it is a social experience that we share with everyone else that has ever read that particular book, or indeed anyone else throughout the history of the printed word. It is social as we discover it, talk about it, discuss and live the story with others, and then pass it on to start the cycle again.  I find this liberating, as the image of the reader transforms from someone with their head stuck in a book to someone who goes out and engages others, inspires them to explore new stories and ideas.

So what’s next? What excites me about the next evolution of the reading experience is the scope, scale and ability of the internet to connect readers from all over the world, from places and walks of life that we may never have met otherwise; people who would simply not have existed to us before.  For the first time in history, the social sphere of influence for anyone reading a book that has inspired them is the entire world of other readers out there. Truly exciting in my opinion.

Reading is as pure a social entertainment form as you will find, it is more than just the actual physical activity of sitting down with a book – it’s everything else that comes with it. It’s metaphysical, philosophical, phantasmagorical, and I think it’s amazing.

Happy reading everyone!

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