People don’t generally think of reading as a communal experience. Consider, for example, the stock mental imagery associated with reading: a child in bed, reading by flashlight; a scholar holed up in his garret. People have very personal relationships to printed books—far more so, I’d bet, than with any other form of media—which is perhaps why the reaction to their possible disappearance gets so heated. It’s also an argument for why they will persevere.
But books have always been social instruments, even for the most private reader. As the scholar Paul Armstrong put it, “Reading has a social, political dimension because we make sense of texts by forming hypotheses about meaning that emerge from the assumptions and conventions we bring from our other experiences with literature and life.” From the ways you find a book—at a library, or via a list devised by a committee of experts—to the ways you evaluate and discuss it—in a classroom, or over beers with friends—you’re engaging in social processes that affect the act of reading.
These social factors bring us right to the doorstep of the Internet age. While Bauerlein and others see the digital realm and the printed word as antagonists, Lang and company argue for the “importance of tracing the historical continuities that emerge between [contemporary] reading practices and those of previous eras.” Those contemporary practices incorporate the digital, but are firmly rooted in the everyday world.
Two essays in the collection, taken together, explore these affinities between the virtual and the mundane, which will seem wholly unremarkable to anyone who’s grown accustomed to life in the past decade. In “Producing Meaning through Interaction,” Joan Bessman Taylor reports on the five years she spent attending book clubs in the Midwest, gathering data on “the often elusive reading practices of real rather than imagined, implied, or ideal readers.” Real readers choose books based on “discussability,” and spend their time “discussing the ways the book could have been different, talking about what members would have preferred to have had included.” Taylor calls this “the creation of the ideal text,” meaning that book-clubbers, through discussion and reflection, add meaning and context that transform the existing text into something new. It’s the same sort of cultural re-mixing that backgrounds 90 percent of the content on the Internet.
Julian Pinder treads similar ground in “Online Literary Communities,” an essay analyzing LibraryThing, a website that, according to its tagline, “connects people based on the books they share.” If real-world book clubs focus on the creation of the ideal text, LibraryThing facilitates the creation of the ideal reading list. The site is a social network on which readers create profiles based around books they’ve read. The network connects users based on shared tastes, and also provides an avenue for discussion and amateur book reviewing.
Though some might see LibraryThing as an example of the triumph of participatory culture over stodgy institutional gatekeepers, the site is heavily influenced by the evaluative and discursive structures that preceded it. Indeed, Pinder notes that the site “suggests the potential for new and productive connections to be forged between” existing institutions and participatory culture. That some users might ignore anything those institutions have to say is irrelevant. The Internet can’t hit the reset button on centuries-long conversations.
Many essays in From Codex to Hypertext attempt to draw similar connections between digital and print reading cultures. They show that the “decline and fall” developments decried by Bauerlein and others are just the latest versions of longstanding practices.
Take David Wright’s essay, “Literary Taste and List Culture in a Time of ‘Endless Choice,’” which examines the phenomenon of user-generated best-of lists—the sort you’d find on Amazon, for instance—in comparison with the sorts of “best books” lists compiled in previous eras. Wright indirectly but substantially addresses the diminution of official critical authority that so worries certain pundits. If readers are free to create and disseminate their own best-of lists, then who’s going to care about the judgments of professional critics and other experts?