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Week of 5 June 2023

Week of 5 June 2023

Social Reading and its Inversion by Social Media

In 2021 a new question was added to the National Library of Singapore’s biennial survey of reading habits among adults. The question pertains to the social circles of readers. The survey found that people who identified as ‘non-readers’ are not likely to have friends who are readers. Moreover, those who identified as ‘habitual readers’ do have friends in their circle who read. A large proportion of readers (about 67%) enjoy the social aspect of reading, which is to discuss what they read with others. We can safely retire the tired stereotype of the retiring, introverted, socially awkward bookworm.

We know from our own experience in bookselling and in conducting bookclubs and book events that readers can sometimes be almost bursting with things to share about the latest book they are reading. Perhaps books are the original ‘social media’. But unlike the cyber-mediated version, books foster real-world connection, and appreciation for contrary viewpoints. Books bring about the mindset of growth and learning, and promotes focussed attention. Books encourage a more meaningful kind of social interaction among people and we should be well reminded of the civilisational effect of reading. Furthermore, human thought is inherently dialogic. The philosophers of ancient Greece knew this. The foremost thinkers of Islamic tradition knew this also, and they wrote many of their tracts as dialogues, crossing swords with unnamed interlocutors. (The act of reading itself is a dialogic process because we are in conversation with the author.) On our own we can maybe sustain a train of thought for a few minutes, but when we are engaging with someone on some topic of common interest (say in a bookclub), we can go on for hours in active thought. We can do our best thinking in social settings.

And this social element to reading is why the space of the bookshop is so important. To think of it as another ‘retail space’ is to miss an important point. Yes, it is a place for readers to meet new books, but it is essentially home for a community of readers. And it is where the practice of browsing, perusing, and reading is socialised.

On the other hand, the social media of the Instagram or TikTok variety turn upside-down what it means to be social and what it means to think, and lately what it means to read. On TikTok, videos about books are all the rage in a phenomenon known as BookTok. An interlocutor could ask: Isn’t it a good thing that people are talking about books? Superficially, that may be the case, but dig deeper and one sees that unfortunately BookTok turns things upside-down too with its social-media grammar of virality, visualness, brevity, and self-importance. BookTok is not so much about reading but about performance. Readers, we need to come home to reading. We do not need social media to validate our reading. Readers need interlocutors to expand and challenge their reading. This is not the same as the ‘audience’ of performative reading. Readers do not have to chase likes and views.

Jaron Lanier in Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now says that today most people learn about the world through social media. This is a scary thought because the pedagogical outcomes of social media are: speak without context, virality is truth, outrage is good engagement, and only pay attention to what has been put in front of you. The population-wide implication of this mindset is too dire to contemplate. We have to move away from social media and prevent it from being the default way we get information about the world and how we engage with each other. We need more readers. And instead of BookTok, we need to talk to each other about the books we love and the ideas they stir within us. Perhaps start by joining a bookclub.

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