Not Reading and Being Read

Note: Yes, I realize that consistency is key, and that I am inconsistent in this post about how I write bestseller/best seller. My preference is bestseller. However, if I’m quoting someone and they have written “best seller,” I have kept the word/phrase that way. I’m not grammatically challenged, I swear!

The other day, a Facebook friend posted a link to a recent article by a Mr. David Levesley, called “No One Is Reading All of Those Bestselling Books.” Great title, right? I mean, right now the New York Times Best Seller list reports that Invisible by James Patterson and David Ellis is the best-selling “combined print & e-book fiction.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t give a hoot about James Patterson, and most of the people I know don’t seem to either. I would rather read Dragons Love Tacos by Adam Rubin, which is sitting comfortably as the fifth best-selling children’s picture book.

Here’s a video of some random lady reading Dragons Love Tacos:

Levesley’s article cites a non-scientific study by the Wall Street Joural‘s Jordan Ellenberg (whose book is actually fourth in the “Science Times” category of the New York Times Best Seller list) that examined which bestsellers are going unread. Ellenberg writes:

How can we find today’s greatest non-reads? Amazon’s “Popular Highlights” feature provides one quick and dirty measure. Every book’s Kindle page lists the five passages most highlighted by readers. If every reader is getting to the end, those highlights could be scattered throughout the length of the book. If nobody has made it past the introduction, the popular highlights will be clustered at the beginning.

Ellenberg then proceeds to use this highlighting criterion to list which of this summer’s bestsellers have gone unfinished most frequently.

The study is whack, which Ellenberg himself admits, but it provides an opportunity for us to look at how reading is a public activity in our contemporary world. Sure, some people see reading as an escapist activity – a socially-acceptable means of isolation – but the reality is that the act of reading is not as solitary as most people think. It’s never been.

Here would be a great time for me to recount the entire history of reading, but I don’t have the time, patience, or skill to do that. If you want a great (and physically- and intellectually-accessible) overview of the history of reading check out Alberto Manguel’s appropriately titled – you guessed it – A History of Reading. Reading Manguel’s book, you’ll learn that in Ancient Greece poems were usually recited rather than read, often for critiquing purposes. You’ll learn that in the Middle Ages people “read” mystery/miracle plays, which were performed in the streets, because the literacy rates were so low and because books were so darn hard to come by. You’ll learn that, although Japanese pillow books resemble private diaries, they would not have been possible without the notion of public vs. private spheres and the desire of Japanese noblewomen to express themselves in a somewhat-public (but still safe) way. Even when reading is displayed as a private thing (think of Saint Ambrose’s silent reading in the 4th century), it is still remarkably public (think of Saint Augustine’s writing about Saint’s Ambrose’s silent reading).

Today, we talk about the books we read with other people. We see people reading on the subway, or the train, or on park benches, and we judge people based on their book choices. Twilight? Really? Even when we read in the privacy of our own homes, with no one to see us, our reading choices are influenced by our friends and family, our professors, and the latest New York Times Best Seller list. I could go on, but I think my point is pretty clear. Reading is not private. I would go so far as to say that it is never truly private and that it never has been.

So why am I talking about reading and privacy?

I’ll give you just one reason: marginalia.

Oh, glorious marginalia – the reason I have purchased so many useless books from used bookstores. A few weeks ago, I re-posted someone else’s blog post called “Around the Text of a Book,” which was all about how we forge imagined relationships through notes and items left in books. The Kindle highlighting and notations features let people leave marginalia in their ebooks. What’s freaky/really flipping cool about the Kindle features, though, is that they’re public. If you don’t want to show anyone the angry notes you left in your hard-copy version of L’Étranger from your first-year seminar, you don’t have to – it’s your book, and you can hide under your bed with all of your other unmentionables. But good luck trying to hide those highlights you made in your e-book. Kindle/Amazon tracks those babies, along with all of your public notes.

When I was looking further into Jordan Ellenberg’s study, I came across some comments by Kindle users who didn’t realize that their highlights were being tracked. “Invasion of privacy” was a term oft-used.

A part of me does think that Kindle/Amazon’s tracking is creepy and unnecessary and, sure, an invasion of privacy. Another part of me, though, can’t help but consider these notes Kindle users are making in their books to just be a contemporary form of marginalia, showing that we don’t abandon old habits easily. We still want to, and do, interact with what we read.

I’m not saying that I support the tracking thing. I’m just saying that it makes sense, especially when e-book readers might not actually own the books they’re reading. Just like Facebook uses its users’ personal information to conduct emotional manipulation studies on them without their explicit consent, Kindle/Amazon uses its users’ personal information to conduct reading habit studies on them without their explicit consent. This is part of our new digital age, where we relinquish some of our “traditional” freedoms (in this case, privacy) to gain access to new freedoms (in this case, almost-unlimited sociality and far too much information). We’re just writing the next chapter of the history of reading.

So, to end on that happy note:

Have something to say?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s