Social Reading: The Future?

by Patrick on July 13, 2009

For those who missed it last week, Sarah Dunant, author of the international bestsellers The Birth of Venus and In the Company of the Courtesan, has made the first few chapters of her new novel Sacred Hearts available at the website Book Glutton.  In and of itself, this is no big deal; many authors are now putting previews or samples of their work online.  What makes this extraordinary is that Dunant has also annotated the chapters, providing backstory for where specific ideas came from and illuminating some of her process as well.  Further, Book Glutton readers can comment on Dunant’s notes (click the asterisk on the side of the screen to see examples), creating a sort of living document or wiki-book.

Is this sort of collaborative or social reading the future?  At the moment, the consensus seems to be that the future of ereading lies not in browser-based reading experiences (ie, any platform that requires you to read on a computer) but rather in handheld devices like the iPhone or the Sony Reader.  It’s clear, though, that this sort of browser-based reading experiment might provide a way of creating real communities around books and around something most of us have considered a solitary activity — reading.  While I enjoy reading a novel without interruption or commentary, the case is different for non-fiction books.  I might like the option of seeing more indepth examples than an editor thought appropriate to include.  Imagine further if those examples came from other scholars on the subject.

Take, for example, Kaya Oakes great new book Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture, the book I’m currently reading and enjoying.  Oakes’s book is 210 pages with notes, and while I think it’s more than enough for the average reader, I find myself wanting to know more about specific anecdotes or people mentioned in the book.  If I were reading the book on a Book Glutton-like system, I might be able to put a note up asking for more information on those subjects.  Oakes herself might be able to respond, but even if she chose not to, someone else might.  Maybe another author like Michael Azerrad might weigh in with further thoughts on what made The Minutemen and SST Records so unique.  Or maybe Mike Watt himself would drop in an anecdote or quote that didn’t make it into the book.  It’s this kind of possibility — the possibility for a real network or readers to make the act of reading the book more informative and more enriching — that really excites me about Book Glutton.

Don’t get me wrong:  I love the solitude of reading.  As a culture, we’re not getting anywhere near enough solitude or time for contemplation.  And I’m not arguing that the form of the book change all that much.  I think authors need an endpoint, a place where the book is done.  I see everything happening after that as being at the impetus of the reader.  I suppose I see this kind of reading experience as somehow supplementary to what we now think of as reading, something extra for people who want or need more.

Vroman’s will be hosting Sarah Dunant at All Saints Church on Wednesday, July 22.  Two tickets are free with purchase of the book which will be released tomorrow (If you don’t want to purchase a book, tickets are $5 a piece).