Close readers

There’s been a lot of public fretting lately over the state of reading. People don’t read as much as they once did, we’re told. When it’s pointed out that in fact lots of people are reading online, we’re sometimes told it’s the wrong kind of reading– “inanities” of “blogging and blugging”, to quote a recent Nobel laureate. I get the impression from some essays that on the one hand there’s offline reading, deep, solitary, and contemplative, and on the other hand online reading, shallow, social, and mercurial. The two seem to have little in common, by this sort of account.

Of course, it’s not that simple. And I’ve recently encountered a few initiatives that cut right across that dichotomy, gathering people together to closely read and discuss texts with each other.

At a recent lunchtime get-together, JT Waldman told me about the Jewish Publication Society‘s new Yavnet web site, now in alpha. It’s a project to create “a living and breathing commentary” on the Torah, by encouraging readers to look at particular passages, and join online, moderated discussions on them. Drawing on the JPS’s Tanakh translations, its published, scholarly commentaries, and online discussions, readers will be able to read and participate in conversations that help bring out the meaning of Biblical passages. The basic idea isn’t new– the Talmud, after all, is a centuries-old multi-layered commentary on the scriptures– but the Yavnet folks hope to use the Internet to grow and propagate fresh understandings and appreciations of the Torah in online communities.

Another recently announced site is Book Glutton (this one says it’s in beta), which aims to bring groups of people together to discuss a book as they read it. Their reader software is also designed for close reading; instead of just reviewing or discussing a book in general, readers can attach comments to specific passages of a book, and have live chats with people reading the same sections. They appear to be built largely on public domain texts, which lend themselves well to new interfaces and purposes.

Mind you, with openly accessible texts, you don’t have to limit your discussion to a single site. Jon Udell recently wrote about how discussions of scientific articles are often widely distributed over the blog network. An active discussion ensued, and just a couple of days later, he made a followup post showing some of the tools now available to track such discussions online. That was quick!

Close reading, whether of books or other text, may sometimes be solitary, but it doesn’t have to be. And the Net can bring together close discussions of text from far-flung participants, discussions that were not practical to convene offline. As Ursula Le Guin put it in the new (February) issue of Harper’s, “Books are social vectors, but publishers have been slow to see it.” (You’ll have to subscribe online or find a copy at your library or news-stand to read the full article, but it’s already being discussed online in various places. I first saw her quote in this Mediabistro post, which also points to some related discussions elsewhere.)

I look forward to seeing the new directions that the social vectors of books and texts take online, as the sites above and others like them develop further.

About John Mark Ockerbloom

I'm a digital library strategist at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.
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