My copy of The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs contains a book marker from The Bob Miller Bookroom which discretely below an engraving of a floral specimen displays a quotation from Emerson: “‘Tis the good reader that makes the good book.” Note that is the definite article that is used: the reader, the book (not a reader or a book). The bookmarker is placed in the chapter “In solitude, for company” where one can read this passage:
So whether you’re participating in an online conversation or reading a book by yourself, your experience is a readerly one and a responsive one. The most significant difference is that reading a book is dialogically asymmetrical: you learn about the book, about its characters and perhaps its author, but none of them learns anything about you. I’m not convinced that this is necessarily regrettable: many of us should probably spend more time just listening, rather than insisting on being heard.
Jacobs goes on to ask “I belabor these points in order to forestall a simplistic conclusion that may be all too tempting in an age of social media. If ‘social’ is intrinsically good, then is not private experience intrinsically less good?” I understand that for the sake of argumentation there is some weighing. I understand that it is an entry point to the evident valuing of the quiet act of reading to and by oneself. I stress the “to and by” which get collapsed in Jacobs — I posit the possibilities of being read to (which still involves separate acts of listening, no matter how large the group). In any case, here is Jacobs on the logical precedence of the single subjective experience (prior to intersubjective sharing).
Reading too is, or should be, a moving between the solitary encounter and something more social. Even when the “more social” thing is just an entry in a private diary, it constitutes a step away from the silent absorption in a text, an attempt to account for and therefore make one’s response more intersubjective, that is, connected to, interacting with, the experiences of others. To write a letter to a friend, or participate in an online debate, or join a book group, are all ways of seeking this social dimension of reading, which almost everyone needs to some degree. But I think I have to insist that these various ways of reading with others are not reading proper, but rather accompaniments to reading. They cannot substitute for the solitary encounter.
I leave you alone with this insistence. But underscore that every social act is accompanied by its own little aura of composure — there is a replication of solitary moments through the chain of social interactions. We need not loose sight that the solitary encounter is not a function of reading by oneself. It arises when we accept to receive, to allow ourselves to be read to.
And so for day 1081