Writing Wednesday: Reading as a Spectator Sport

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So, how many of you guys have Goodreads accounts?

I mention it because, even though I’ve had one forever, I’ve really only recently started spending time on there. (Here’s my account, if anyone wants to friend me up). It’s pretty cool. All those readers in what is essentially a social media site–talking about books, talking about writing, friending other readers who like similar books.

Sounds great, right?

And, I mean, it is. Of course it is. It’s fun, seeing what books you’ve read that other people have read, why they liked them (or didn’t). But it’s made me think.

Reading used to be a solitary thing. It used to be your entertainment when you were stuck somewhere–on a bus, at a doctor’s office, etc. You might talk about a book briefly with a friend you knew in some other context, or one day a week with a group of helmet-haired ladies in a coffee shop who like to make jokes about how much they love wine (they called this phenomenon ‘book clubs’. It was the beginning of the social reading revolution).

But that book, in a weird way, was yours. What you got from it was yours. How you felt about it was yours.

Now, at your fingertips, there are a thousand opinions about any book you choose. There are strangers from across the world, with lifestyles you don’t know about, to tell you whether or not to read it. And if you have a Kindle–like me–my God, you can tell Amazon how you felt about that book the second you finish it too, joining the cacophany of voices. If your Kindle has WiFi (mine does), you can hop on Twitter or Facebook and share that you finished with the whole goddamn Internet. The discussion can begin. Your alone time is over.

This is terrifying.

I read a lot as a kid. I’m not going to say reading was an escape–I had nothing to escape FROM, I was nine–but it was a great way to fight boredom. Why would I want to poke around the front yard when I could journey back to Ithaca with Odysseus? I was an only child. I had few friends my own age. But there were always books, always a lot of books. And books never changed their minds, never yelled at you, never made you feel any way about yourself you didn’t choose to feel. Books knew how to stand back and let you make your own assumptions, your own choices.

The Internet can’t say the same.

When I read something popular now, I find myself wondering how much of any opinion I have about the book comes from something I’ve read online. Why wouldn’t it? I go online to buy most of them. Amazon reviews are right there. Goodreads reviews are right there. Reviews in newspapers and on television were easy enough to ignore–reviews from ‘people like you’ (they aren’t), not so much. There are so many of them, for one. Everyone has an opinion, and everyone likes to share it.

And my own book? I get a five star review, I’m happy for weeks. How much do I validate myself–how much do I trust my own skill–based on golden stars awarded by ‘people like me’?

Reading has become interactive. It’s become a spectator sport. And I’m not sure it hasn’t lost something for that–a small part, perhaps, of its value, of its worth to our characters and souls.

Don’t get it twisted, I’m an indie writer. This new interactive reading has given me a way to be published on my time and my way that I might not’ve otherwise had. But the social media upkeep–and I am by far and away not one of the people most into it–is immense. Even updating people on what’s on sale when is work. And often, when I turn my Kindle on, I don’t go straight to the books any more. I go to Twitter, or Facebook, or, yes, Goodreads. I check my email. I check my sales.

I actually stopped writing this week, and I did it so I could read.

I might post star ratings on Goodreads for the things I’ve read. If something’s particularly good, I might post a short review. But am I interested in talking about these books in depth, talking about what’s good and bad, what I think should’ve been different? No. Surprisingly, no.

Because I know how I felt about what I read. I don’t need you to tell me, and I don’t need to know what the author had for dinner, or how cute her kids are.

And honestly? You might’ve read the same book. You know how you felt, too. Does it do us any good to talk about it, really? Or does it cheapen it, somehow?

I know this poem is oft-quoted and you’re probably all sick of seeing it, but I wanted to leave you with Keats. On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, specifically. Because I want everybody to think, for just a minute, about poor little John Keats, the hostler’s son and fantastic poet, who, though unable to read Greek, opened Chapman’s Homeric translations in the company of a friend and was transformed.

Next time, when you read something, take a moment to stand, silent, upon a peak in Darien. Nobody around you gives a shit what you thought of the plot devices, or what your level of education and experience is in the reading. Just take what you take from it. Just do it.

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse I had been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne:
Yet never did I breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific–and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise–
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

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