Fordham GSAS: Grad. Life: The Social Book

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Social Book

   When you think of "reading," what images come to mind? For me, I picture being curled up with a novel and a cup of coffee on the couch on a winter day, or lying on a beach chair soaking up the sun when I turn the pages of a favorite fantasy. Sometimes, I am reminded of late nights and tired eyes, trying to finish a new work before a seminar the next day. Other times, the verb "reading" evokes images of a table in the corner of a sunlit cafe, of a quiet desk top in a corner of the third floor of Walsh Library, or of a blanket spread out on the quad during an early May warm spell.
     All of these scenes involve a solitary person, in a space that may be public or shared space -- but a space made very private by the act of reading. For me, reading has always been about being drawn in somewhere between the pages, shutting out the rest of the world.

    Of course, I went to graduate school for literature because I loved nothing more than talking about these books and these reading experiences, thus making the very private act of my reading transform into something public once again -- be it a discussion in a class or around the dinner table, a lesson plan, an essay or article, or a conference talk. The oscillation between the private and the public in our acts of reading are quite fascinating, indeed.
     I ask this question about reading because a new concept of reading has emerged in the world, driven by the new landscape of social media and technological communication. It is called "social reading" -- along with it comes the concept of the "social book." Featured in the most current issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, "social reading" imagines the act of reading as one facilitated by social media applications, in which readers can "log into" an interactive, online text and "read" in a "group," making marginal notes, links, comments, and annotations as they read, while others do the same, creating a sort of "open," ever-changing text, and making the experience of reading become a interactive, hypertextual experience.
     If the every-day pleasure reader may find social reading unappealing, what about for teachers? The Chronicle article points out that the "social book" may be an excellent way to start thinking about teaching texts in a classroom format, either in a traditional classroom or an online classroom. I have to admit, that is the first thought I had when I was introduced to the idea of a social book -- what an amazing teaching tool!
    The concept of the social book and social reading has emerged from the intense increase in tablets, e-readers, and mobile devices that threaten to make the traditional paper book obsolete. And the idea that books may go out of style is not just changing the way we read but the way we write, as well. In the same way booksellers are wondering how to market books in ways that keep up with the times, so are writers wondering how to write books that keep up with the times. My sister launched a project during her senior year at the Parsons School of Design that experimented with social writing; the project called for a text to be written collaboratively using social media. The design of the "book" would be dictated by the ways in which it slowly emerged out of the collaboration. In the end, my sister is hoping that the resulting text will be a new form of a book, that is "read" according to the design innovations developed during the collaborations. I took part in the project as one of the collaborative writers; and, each day, I would check to see how the text grew. It was almost like watching a living thing grow day by day -- it was a fascinating experience!
    Of the concept of social reading, Jennifer Howard writes, "A conventional book invites readers to shut out the world while they read. Social reading asks them to connect with others as they encounter the text. Whether that sounds like a more perfect world depends on the reader." What do YOU think?
    Sound off, grad students!
    Until next time, Liza


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