“Is reading social?” The question has been going around the litsphere, though many who have answered have reached for a middle ground between the disconcerting idea of social (and Internet-connected) literature and the more traditional notion of reading as an intensely private and solitary activity. I don’t see much need for middle ground here — I think the question is an open-and-shut case.
Reading is intensely social, and it’s barely anything but social, and it has always been so. I know this because I know what reading feels like: when I read another person’s book, I am engaging in a sharing of thoughts with this person. It doesn’t make much difference, when I read Moby Dick, that Herman Melville has been dead for a long time. It’s not his dead voice I find in the book; to the extent that I am reading him, I am encountering him in full. To read another person’s words is to conduct a meeting of the minds. Is reading an intensely private activity? Well, sure, your reading life is private, just like your sex life is private. But it’s not the least bit solitary (if it were, it wouldn’t be reading, and it wouldn’t be sex).
Reading is also social for another reason: almost all books are about people. Specifically, they’re about people being social. If you read a chapter or a story that takes place at a dinner party, you are experiencing that dinner party vicariously. You laugh when a character is funny, wince when someone gets hurt, miss them all when they’re gone. If the writer you are reading has mediocre talent, you may not experience their dinner party vividly, but if the writer is a master, it may be one of the best parties of your life. It’s possible to quibble that this type of imaginary engagement is only social by proxy. But every reader knows it doesn’t feel like proxy when we’re in the middle of it.
Finally, the third major reason that reading is social is that, when we read, we are keenly aware of others who have read, are reading, or will read the book. These ghosts peer over our shoulders as we turn every page. The first thing we do, when we discover a new writer, is share the joy with somebody else. How many friendships and love affairs have begun over a common literary taste? It’s a powerful glue.
The apprehensions of others towards the literature we read also plays a gigantic role in our own apprehension of this literature. Without this collective unconscious, we might be unable to read at all. The Guardian just ran a disappointing article by Jay McInerney (a decent modern novelist with a bad career-long habit of implicitly comparing himself to F. Scott Fitzgerald) about the recurring popularity of The Great Gatsby. This article concludes, yawningly, that we love the story of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan because it reflects our own yearning for wealth and our wish “to reinvent ourselves, some day, any day now, almost certainly starting tomorrow.” It’s hard to believe that McInerney couldn’t have come up with a more original take on The Great Gatsby than this old harried line.
Here’s one thing he could have said, if he had thought harder about it. We love The Great Gatsby because other readers love it. It’s an important book because it’s one of the few novels — Catcher in the Rye may be the only other one — that enough people have actually read that it can be discussed in large groups, with a high level of mutual comprehension. if The Great Gatsby was only a moderately famous Jazz Age novel — like, say, John O’Hara’s equally brilliant, equally captivating Appointment in Samarra — it would lose at least half its charm. Boats against the current and all. It would be just another damn good book.
Maybe we don’t like to fess up to how social our reading lives are, because we like to picture ourselves as stolid, solitary granite pillars of intellect and emotion. But, if we tried to read in a vacuum, I bet we’d find our favorite books suddenly lacking flavor. I bet it would be nearly impossible to slog through a single page of printed text. We read together. It’s the only way we’ve ever been able to enjoy a book. It’s what literature is.