To Share is Human

Last week I wrote about my break from writing and how I’d spent it doing a good amount of reading. I noted how I’d stumbled across a particularly interesting (and good quality) “curation” site called Brain Pickings which collects interesting reading material (and some videos) from around various books and around the web. As a tangent to that, I’ve been seeing an increasing tendency to make reading (which by itself is a solitary activity) more “social”. I’m not entirely sure if that’s a good thing.

A few weeks ago I found an interesting little service called Findings that lets you clip little snippets of text on the web and present in a quotation format with a proper citation. Though I don’t know how Findings can hope to make money (or how long they’ll stay up without a revenue stream) but they’re an interesting little service. Amazon’s Kindle devices and apps allow you to highlight passages from Kindle books and share them. So does the excellent Readmill app which I use to read free ePub books on my iPad.

The recent rise of social media is almost entirely built around the idea of sharing. I suppose it’s not really surprising. To share is human, we want to tell our stories and be heard. We want to tell people what we’re interested in, what we like and what we don’t like and we want to find people with similar interests so that we can share experiences. In some ways I suppose we share for the same reasons we live in families and communities: connecting with other human beings is a natural thing to do (though not for everyone and certainly not all the time). Sharing is one way of connecting.

Sharing may be a fundamentally human quality, but so is individuality. (There’s a Star Trek reference in there somewhere.) And that means that there are some things that we do not want to be shared, or at least not shared with the world at large. That’s why we have curtains and doors with locks on them. There are some experiences that should be limited to a single human being at a time (or we have agreed that should be the case). We value this notion of individuality and privacy highly enough that we have laws to explicitly protect it (though Mark Zuckerberg might want us to believe differently).

Personally, I’m on the more open side of the spectrum. My Twitter stream and Facebook account is probably more active than I’d care to admit. But I have my boundaries. I don’t post pictures online (partially that’s because I don’t really take many pictures) and I’m also somewhat skeptical about the whole “social reading” thing (see, all stuff about social reading services had a point after all). I believe that thinking, actual deep thinking, is best done alone or at most in small groups. Reading and writing are both forms of exchanging thoughts. To write well you must collect your own thoughts, organize them into a narrative and put them down in a coherent structure. To read well you must be in a position to absorb thoughts from a series of symbols, you must interpret them in the framework of your own experiences and judge which of those thoughts are to be accepted and incorporated and which are to be checked or discarded. Mandy Brown’s article on Ways of Reading is instructive, but like all such things, your mileage may vary.

While I like the idea of sharing quotations, writing book reviews and talking about books and the ideas behind them, all of those are secondary activities to the act of actually reading. They are preferably done at a later time, possibly in a different place. Now I’m certainly not one to tell you how you should go about reading. For one thing, I’m no Luddite, I love the Internet and all that has allowed. I think that sharing is by and large a good thing. Also, if I am to suggest that reading is a solitary activity then I probably have little right to tell you how to go about it. However, perhaps it’s best to keep in mind why we’re reading in the first place. Sometimes we read for information, sometimes for pleasure, sometimes to escape and sometimes to connect over particular books, authors and genres. I wonder if perhaps the rise of “social reading” might be the beginnings of a re-imagining of Ye Olde Book Club, but in a distributed, ad-hoc fashion. Maybe that’s a good thing, or maybe it’s just different. We shall see. But whatever you do please keep reading.

And if you’re not in a committed relationship, consider dating a girl who reads.

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