Many of my dearest childhood memories are of stolen hours alone with a book. I think most of us lump reading hand in hand with solitude, the time for reflection and quiet being one of the pleasures afforded by a good book.
But once upon a time, not so very long ago, reading was a community event, a social activity in which entire families and even neighborhoods took part.
I’m not talking about the beaches upon which crowds gathered to listen to Homer’s recitations of the Iliad. That was for a pre-literate society, one that had to listen because it could not read.
And some communal reading did take place for that reason. For example, it was fairly common in the 18th and 19th centuries for families to gather of an evening and read aloud to one another, often from the Bible.
But even as public education was institutionalized and literacy became widespread, that tradition continued in the interests of time management. One child read while the others made clothing, repaired tools, or rested after a day of hard work.
And the community aspect of the experience was part of what made it so enjoyable, lending the text to discussion after a period of reflection that could continue for days.
Another example would be China, where a compilation of poetry from as early as 1000 BC called the Book of Songs serves as a grammar primer even to this day.
Once, while I was teaching the poems in a world literature class here in the United States, one of my Asian students showed me a text message that her friend had sent to his girlfriend. He had quoted a couplet from one of the poems as a way of telling her that he missed her.
After working with college students for more than a decade, I scoff when popular theorists bemoan the decline of reading in our culture. I can personally attest to the fact that our young people love to read, and they love reading books—the real textural ones that you can feel and smell.
But here’s my theory. There’s a feeling among the younger generation that reading is a decadent, luxurious activity, one that isolates them in a way that watching movies, playing video games, and even surfing the internet do not.
You see, those activities, even when performed alone, allow you to participate in popular culture. They give one sound bytes, archetypes, a shared point of reference that create a sense of belonging.
In the same way that we quote a line from a movie and everyone laughs, people used to quote Shakespeare. But the proliferation of the written word no longer permits such shared reference.
Now I’m not advocating that we ban self-publishing or return to some hard-core definition of the literary canon to “save Western civilization.” I like the diversity of literature we have available to us. But I want to think about ways that reading can become a communal experience again.
The Big Read offers suggestions and tools for communities to organize group reading programs.
Lots of us have participated in book clubs, with varying degrees of enrichment.
What are your thoughts? Do you agree that communal reading is the way to go? And do you have any ideas about how we could do it, or do it better?