Margaret, the Traveling Reader, Part Three: Reading Is a Social Activity? Yes? No? Kind of?

Apologies a thousand times for being such a crappy blogger. If it is hard to read and write while traveling alone, I now know it to be at least doubly hard to read and write while traveling with other people. For nearly a month now, I’ve been either traveling with friends or staying as a guest in people’s homes, and my chances to dedicate serious time to reading and writing have been few and far between. I’ve felt compelled to talk, and entertain, and listen (even when listening means sitting, silently, and hearing syllables in a foreign language bounce around without the faintest chance of my comprehending them). Essentially, over the past few weeks I’ve been far more “social” than I have throughout the rest of my trip, and all this sociability has cut into what I think of as my “non-social” time–the time I spend alone, the time in which I read and write–and when it hasn’t cut into that time itself, it has cut into the energy I have to spend on myself, and on my reading and writing. As a result of all this sociability and subsequent exhaustion and too much thinking about both, the question I want to consider in this entry is one that I’ve been thinking about a lot these past few weeks, and that’s the question, “is reading a social activity?”

Now, obviously reading is an activity that falls under some part of the vast umbrella of “the social;” few things do not. And even as I write these first sentences, I feel that I probably already know that the answer to my question is “yes,” reading is a social activity. And while part of me wonders the point of investigating a question to which I already have the answer,  I am still puzzled by the strength of my own confusion, by the strength of my feeling that reading is not really a social activity, or that it is not social in the same sense that other things,  like dinner parties or canasta or piano recitals and what have you, are social activities.

My confusion could stem simply from the vagueness of the question itself; maybe the question would be better worded “reading is a social activity, but a social activity of what kind?,” or, better still perhaps, “why is it that I feel reading is a peculiar social activity–not social in an ordinary sense, nor, necessarily in an extraordinary sense,but social, somehow, in a different way?”

….Hm. Not any clearer, eh?

Well, then, first an attempt at what I mean by “social.” A long time ago, someone told me that the difference between an introvert and an extrovert is that introverts charge their batteries when alone and spend their energies when they are with people, and extroverts charge their batteries when they are with people and spend their energies when they are alone. I charge my batteries when I’m reading, and I spend my energy when I’m with people. So perhaps I find the distinction between reading as social and reading as anti- or non-social difficult because, for me, to be social is so hard, and reading is so easy. Maybe the crux of my confusion comes down to the simple fact that in my mind, I associate reading strongly with my more introverted, non-social tendencies. I think of what is “social” as painful and difficult I think of reading as the opposite–as comfortable and easy.

Thus the question of whether reading is a social activity or not shrinks from a general sense of the question and a general sense of “the  social” to a more personal sense of both: is reading, for me, a social activity, in that it draws me out socially or does it allow me, instead, to resist and avoid social interactions? On this trip, I’ve used reading (often unsuccessfully) in various attempts to appear occupied and unavailable. On trains, planes, buses and less often, in hostels, coffee shops, restaurants and parks, I’ve felt that by sitting quite obviously engrossed in a book I’d avoid unwanted attention. And about this I’ve been very wrong…I’ve since added sunglasses, headphones, and a hood to my “inaccessible” look (and as it has gotten colder, several scarves, gloves and a funny fleece hat) and I’ve been faring somewhat better (though the thought occurs to me that maybe I’ve just been reading the wrong books… has anyone had particular luck being personally repellent with a certain volume in hand? Please let me know).

As thus far in this entry I’ve only managed to determine that the question I began with isn’t a very good one, or at least, isn’t a very clear one, I feel at this point I can either desist, or try to approach my confusion from a different angle. So as I’m feeling foolhardy and I really like this coffee shop and want to sit here for another three hours nibbling cake, please excuse me as I take a some wild liberties with the “history” of reading, as the historical angle is the tack I’ll try next.

To narrow things down a bit from the grand, all-inclusive  history of reading, let’s say that I’m considering here primarily the reading of fiction, and that the history of fiction is the history of stories and of storytelling, and storytelling has its nascence in the oral tradition, in the passing down of folklore and history from someone’s mouth to someone else’s ears, sometimes the ears of one person and often the ears of many. People have been speaking to each other for millennia, but reading was invented, if that verb is appropriate, less than 10,000 years ago.  Stories like The Iliad and The Odyssey and Beowulf were spoken aloud long before they were written down. And even once stories could be written down, the necessity of having every book painstakingly composed with pen and ink, letter by letter, and then constructed by hand made books inaccessible except to the very very rich, which in itself was not too important because beyond the very very rich, not too many people knew how to read.

A few days ago in Mainz I visited the Gutenburg Museum and there I saw more evidence of the collision and collusion of reading and the social. The invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440 (to be fair to the non-West, there is evidence of movable type having been used in Asia centuries earlier) led at first to the printing only of religious texts, nearly all of them in Latin. I’ve been reading a book about Tudor England and the wives of King Henry VIII, and I’ve learned that only decades before the birth of Shakespeare  Queen Anne Boleyn held the at-that-time-still heretical belief that bible should be translated into English, something which was accomplished, by William Tyndale, even before Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic Church in the 1530s (and less than a century after Gutenberg printed the first of his famous bibles).  So the invention of the printing press was followed quickly by the printing of more and more books, printed in more and more cities and on more and more subjects: astronomy, botany, biology, geography, music, fables.  In the 17th and 18th centuries, as books became easier to make, and as the rising middle classes made more money and could more easily afford them, their popularity and profitability grew and books began to be printed more often in the spoken languages of the day, culminating (if any history that is still continuing so vibrantly into the present can be said to culminate) in the 19th century with the heyday of the Victorian novel and the many, many printed words contained in works by authors like Dickens, Thackery, Trollope and Eliot.

It seems clear that over these hundreds of years and through all of these advances in technology and literacy, a great many things about reading must have changed, not the least of which being that initial change to reading from listening. The telling of stories, that morphed into the reading of fiction, was no longer the shared activity of a speaker and a listener, but rather the quieter transaction encompassed by the relationship of a book to a reader. One of the human elements of the speaker-listener dyad disappeared, replaced by the book, which for all the life (and all the lives) it can contain, remains an inanimate object.  Maybe this, then, accounts somewhat for my confusion about the social nature of reading.

It appears that reading has two somewhat contradictory aspects: the solitary and the social. One reads to oneself alone, the words enter one’s own brain perhaps differently than anyone else’s, the same book for two different people is, one can argue, not the same book at all. And yet, as someone pointed out after my Kindle post, reading often is a remarkably communal activity, spreading from the casual borrowing of a book from a friend to libraries containing millions upon millions of volumes. And there is of course the social aspect of what we read, because the stories in books are social stories, and this is true of almost all novels, not just novels like those written by Austen or Trollope in which the focus on sociability is so explicit.

Indeed, sometimes this social side of reading seems to completely overwhelm the solitary side of the activity, as in the case of books like the Harry Potter series. Talk about reading as a social activity–those books, as many others have before them (I’m reminded here of the influence of Pilgrim’s Progress in the works of Louisa May Alcott, or of Shakespeare on everyone ever) have entered the fabric of social reality and become the shared literary experience of a generation–of many generations– so that reading, in this case, is not only social in its own right, but it has spawned so many social activities and social languages that to remove reading from the social, even to separate it temporarily for the purposes of better examining it as a practice, becomes almost laughable in its own impossibility.

And on top of all of this, there are still more “social” aspects to the activity of reading. When I give a book as a gift, or often even when I simply recommend a book to someone without giving it to them myself, I feel that I’m sharing something important, not just the book itself, but some part of myself. The book, the recommendation: both are often an attempt to communicate something, either about myself, or about something that I think to be true of the world, something this particular book gets right, some particular truth it reveals.  And communication, even when it is just attempted and failed, is surely one of the most important building blocks of all things social.

So reading is, in all these ways and countless more, no doubt, a social activity. What to make, then, of my confusion? For that, I’ll look to the solitary aspect of reading that I’ve written next to nothing about so far.

On this trip, I’ve visited a lot of museums, and nearly all of them have at least one painting of a woman (or women) reading. The earliest examples of such paintings seem to come from the Middle Ages, and the more recent pieces are not always paintings, but often photographs. There are so many of these paintings that museums often sell boxes of postcards set around this theme (thanks, Dad!), as well as posters and prints of more the famous examples from the genre.

Like lots of other people, I love these paintings. I’ve stared at some of them for what has felt like hours (most especially to the people standing behind me, waiting for me to move and give them their own, proper look).  I think, maybe, the key to reading’s peculiarity as a social activity can be glimpsed within paintings like this, so bear with me, as I lurch from the “history of reading” to Art History, something about which I certainly know even less.

Here is one of my favorites, that I saw in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, by Dutch artist Pieter Janssens Elinga:

Pieter Janssens Elinga, from the Alte Pinokotek, Munich.

I love the discarded shoes in the foreground, and that the woman’s face is hidden.

Another Elinga, which I like possibly even more (it can be found at the Städel museum, in Frankfurt):

Pieter Janssens Elinga, from the Städel Museum, in Frankfurt.

And a much more recent example, Eve Arnold’s photograph of Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses:

Photograph by Eve Arnold

For me, all of these images–and so many of the other paintings and photographs of reading women I’ve seen– evoke a sense of a space within a space.

The women in these paintings are often reading in kitchens, or bedrooms, on window sills, or park benches. Almost always (here Elinga’s second painting is an exception) the women depicted are alone, but beyond their solitude, these paintings have little else in common; era of origin, setting, expression, tone, color, style, all these things are vary a great deal. Sometimes in (mostly French) portraits women are shown with a book nearly falling from their hands, its pages open and tilted, upside-down, toward the front of the canvas, the sitter’s eyes gazing distractedly or determinedly elsewhere. But more often, the reading women seem nearly unaware that they are playing any part in the creation of a painting or a photograph at all–their eyes are on their books, sometimes at the expense of potatoes waiting to be peeled or floors waiting to be swept.

Elinga’s women read by a window, or at a desk while another woman sweeps and the painter works in the background; Monroe is photographed in a park, sitting on a merry-go-round. But whatever the setting, somewhere in the act of picking up a book and turning their eyes to its pages, these women remove themselves, a little, from the works of art they exist within. They seem unaware of their object-hood, as if they are immersed in a kind of communication which focuses on their existence as subjects, rather than as objects. And maybe this is what makes reading a peculiar—a special—kind of social activity for me. It is an activity in which my thoughts remain grounded within myself. I do not need to sense too much about the world around me, or feel to0 intently the presence of any of the six-billion-plus people I share it with–I am able to focus, with delicious selfishness, only on the gauging of my own reactions against the canvas of my soul. What reading offers, then, in its more-solitary, less-social aspect, is a chance to look inward, but to do so without having to be too alone in the ordeal. Not too alone, but without too much company, either. A difficult balance to strike.  To me, what these paintings often capture is the trading of one kind of self-consciousness for another, better kind, a trade that reading makes possible, or at least makes easier.

And once I’ve looked inward, book in hand, I find it less difficult to turn outward again, less difficult to be “social.”  Because when I do look up from whatever I’m reading, I usually have something I can talk about, or book to recommend.  Or at the very least,  I have  a little more energy with which to face the rest of the world, and the knowledge that there is a space I can always retreat to when the world has tired me out yet again.


2 thoughts on “Margaret, the Traveling Reader, Part Three: Reading Is a Social Activity? Yes? No? Kind of?

  1. I loved your post, as usual. The women-reading-books trope immediately brought to mind this Iranian realist, Iman Maleki. Reading is a big motif in his work, and he has group and solitary reading. Man I love his work. In fact, I wish I could jump into his work. Oh, if only the Magic Treehouse were real…

    • Fatima, thank you for posting this link! Maleki’s paintings are stunning, in a really quiet, gorgeous, compelling kind of way…I’ve been going back to that site over and over.

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