Posted by: Monideepa Tarafdar | October 22, 2010

The “book-reading” for the not-so-traditionally inclined

At a talk and book-reading by Alexander McCall Smith (author of, among other books, the #1 Ladies Detective Agency series) that I attended yesterday, I was struck by the audience demographic and their accouterments. To a person almost, they were in their 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. They had an air of leisurely anticipation as they went about choosing their seats in the auditorium and settling in comfortably. Their cell phones were in their bags or pockets and once the rustling and shifting and creaking noises had subsided, they seemed to find it worthwhile to actually look at the speaker and presumably listen to what he had to say, instead of looking down and typing on or scrolling down screens of various types.  I thought back to the 20 somethings I see in my classes – restless, multi-tasking, apparently alert, fingers constantly moving and tapping on some device, and always tuned in to something invisible. I know that they like to read books and many of them probably have read books by this particular author. So why weren’t any of them here, among these 700 or so people?

The event of the “book-reading” is probably as old as the book itself. A bunch of people who like to read meet over a meal or a drink and discuss a book that they all have read. It is a gentle sharing of thoughts, joys, frustration, and  excitement, or any other feeling that the reading of the book may invoke in them. Sometimes, as in this case, the author might join in. The objective  – to vent, appreciate , laugh, maybe cry, think – and really to view the characters and their lives through the lens of one’s own actions and choices and perhaps even to take stock. Book readings can be intense, cathartic or simply fun. Do my students, or for that matter, do those of us who more and more rarely now pick up a paper book, “book-read” at all?

Well, we do- we book-read from wherever we happen to be – on a train, in a park or in a meeting. We may be completely “alone” when we are doing it, and not sitting together with a group of people. We do it on Facebook, for example.  “I just finished reading “The Grand Design” and I think Stephen Hawking is rather wrong”. And we might post a link to a summary or excerpt from the book for our friends to see. And one of them may follow our link and read the book and tell us and their friends what they think about it and we get a discussion going. Or we might use Shelfari, where we put the books we are currently reading,  on a virtual “shelf” that people we are Shelfari-pals with might see and talk with us about. We also might send out tweets about what we think of the book to our followers who might snowball it out to their followers and so on, generating a viral book-read!

Since the most rapidly catching on reading device is a handy screen that can store thousands of books and can download them instantly (a.k.a. Kindle, Nook, E-Book Reader, iPad), it means at any given time you can have many books about you. You can thus read stuff from a large selection whenever you have slivers of time. So you might be involved in several different book readings with different groups of people at the same time. The idea of having several conversations about different books is not un-appealing to those who love to read.

Then again, you book-read in chunks. Instead of sitting in one place and immersing yourself in a discussion for a given length of time, you do it in spurts. You post something, responses trickle in over hours and days, and the conversation about the book, instead of stopping after a relatively short and intense hour or two, draws itself out and takes all kinds of meandering turns, some not even perhaps directly related to the book. One side to this of course is that the experience can be quite rich and varying, pulling together and connecting a multitude of serendipitous ideas and world-views and enriching your own. On the flip side, it can be utterly meaningless and incoherent. Just follow any discussion thread on YouTube and you will see what I mean.

After his talk  Alexander McCall-Smith came out to sign books for the audience. A line formed – the 50 and 60 and 70 year old’s talked about the books and their characters. He graciously shook hands with everyone and answered their questions. For that brief and unhurried period of time, author and reader were drawn together into comfort-filled appreciation of how life is best understood through the stories we tell.  And the book became the language through which they communicated ideas and reflections too unpretentious and too precious to say in book-deprived words.

I thought of the alternate world – that in which our frenzied fingers rapidly carry our book-readings and thought streams across the vast and disembodied spaces of the simultaneous electronic networks that we are part of.  We are linked to many many more people than has ever been possible to connect with. Are we,  somewhere, exchanging quiet reflection with frantic processing, immersion with skimming, and deepness of experience with shallow encounters?

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