Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
The Social Politics of Reading


I read New York Times book reporter Motoko Rich's recent Week in Review article, "The Book Club With Just One Member," with mixed feelings. I've never joined a book club; as a graduate student in English, then an English professor, now a reviewer, they always seemed a little too coals-to-Newcastleish for me. Nevertheless, Rich's apparent disdain for the current status of reading as "a relentlessly social pursuit" rubbed me the wrong way.

For one thing, I am permanently skeptical of arguments based on the premise that one kind of reading is superior to another. Although Rich is careful to list the benefits of "communal reading" -- book clubs, fan sites, and social networking can generate sales and make it easier to get through "challenging" books like Ulysses and Infinite Jest -- it's clear that she is more interested in the reading habits of "a different class of reader" than those who enjoy a glass of Chardonnay and a soupçon of gossip with their books. Indeed, her superlatives underscore her self-evident preference for "the more bookish people" who have "especially intense feelings about books" that are "too intimate to share." That her examples of such readers include authors Virginia Woolf, Lois Lowry, and Katherine Paterson reinforces the impression that those who read in "private reading worlds" are the true readers among us.
By Rich's criteria, I am a motley reader at best. Though I don't do book clubs and my eternal fantasy is several hours alone with a book, I am ever eager to share my reading experiences, whether with friends in conversations, emails, and Facebook posts, with strangers in reviews, or, of course, in this column.

But I don't want to talk about me. I'm confident in my identity as a reader, regardless of how Motoko Rich would categorize me. Rather, I'm interested in the limitations and implications of Rich's categories.

Take Virginia Woolf. Purporting to demonstrate Woolf's commitment to solitary reading, Rich quotes her as saying, "The pursuit of reading is carried on by private people." This line, however, is actually the last clause in the opening sentence of The Common Reader, a collection of literary essays. In it, Woolf is establishing the difference between scholars, critics, and reviewers, whom she considers public readers, and the "private people," whom we might call amateurs, carrying on their "pursuit of reading" in "rooms, too humble to be called libraries, yet full of books." In other words, she distinguishes the private from the public, not necessarily from the social.

Woolf herself was the quintessential public reader, writing literary reviews and essays for numerous periodicals, and, with her husband Leonard, founding Hogarth Press to publish the books she presumably wanted others to read. This brings me to another crucial facet of Woolf's reading life: her family. Along with her reading husband, Woolf had a reading father: Leslie Stephen, the distinguished Victorian editor, writer, literary critic. She grew up in a house with a library and plenty of other rooms "full of books," and there's no doubt that her family was the crucible -- positive and negative -- of her own literary life.

Indeed, if you scratch a compulsive reader, you're likely to find a reading family. Nineteenth-century diaries, letters, and novels are full of family members teaching each other to read, giving books as gifts, reading aloud, and generally sharing books in all manners of ways. My reading friends similarly foster the reading lives of their children, and some couples even read aloud to each other, though that's never appealed to me (like I said, I'm a motley reader). Then there's my family. I've frequently mentioned my children's reading, but it goes both ways: I well remember the giant canvas bag overflowing with books that we took on vacation when I was a child; today, when my parents come to my house, they peruse the bookshelves and stacks of books on the coffee table, looking for something to read.

I am suggesting, then, that the dichotomy Rich establishes between those who read alone and those who broadcast their reading on Twitter is not sufficient. There is -- and long has been -- another context for reading: the family, in which sharing books does not detract from the individual reader's personal relationship to books, but, rather, supports it.

The problem with this model, however, is that it threatens to exclude the children of non-reading families from the pleasures of reading. I am not speaking theoretically here. Research shows that literacy development begins in early childhood, and the 60% of children whose parents do not read aloud to them regularly, not to mention the 20-25% of children who have virtually no pre-school experience with books, arrive at kindergarten already at a significant disadvantage when it comes to learning to read.

This is where social and public reading of all kinds take on new importance, though it's probably not the importance Rich has in mind when she waxes rhapsodic about reading as one of "the last remaining private activities." Some children certainly emerge from non-reading families as avid readers -- statistics never account for everyone. But for many others, a social culture of reading can make all the difference. If a family literacy organization gives your family books, if you watch Sesame Street and Between the Lions on television, if a school neighbor or somebody else's grandmother comes to your school to read with you, if you write to a pen pal about the books you read, if you create blogs and wikis about books, reading gets embedded in a network of encouraging relationships that help it become a meaningful activity.

At my daughters' elementary school, every child in kindergarten and first grade has a book buddy in an older class. Once a week, the students get together and read. It starts with the older children reading aloud to the younger ones, but eventually, if all goes according to plan, they read together. My younger daughter Eva has spent much of the year seeking out books that will interest her first grade book buddy . Though she barely talks, this little girl gives Eva a big hug whenever she sees her and listens avidly as she reads. I'm guessing both girls will grow up to read to their own children, and I can't think of a better example of the power of social reading.

Rebecca Steinitz has written for The New Republic, The Utne Reader, Salon, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, Hip Mama, Inside Higher Ed, Publisher’s Weekly, BookPage, and The Women’s Review of Books, among other places. She is a contributor to the anthologies It’s a Girl and Mama PhD and her book Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary will be published by Palgrave Macmillan later this year. In her previous life as an English professor, she taught nineteenth-century British literature, feminist theory, and writing. She now works as a writing coach in the Boston Public Schools. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters.

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Rebecca, Thank your for this terrific article. The dichotomy between public and private reader is most certainly false one. It is possible (maybe essential?) to be both, and reading with and to children is fundamental not just to basic literacy but also for encouraging children to be thoughtful, critical, empathic participants in a larger world. The benefits of reading broadly and deeply resonate far beyond the page.
I have been a sometimes happy, sometimes dissatisfied member of at least five book groups, including one now formed of expats in Naples, Italy. But my best book group experience by far was a mother/daughter one that my oldest daughter and I started and belonged to from her 5th grade through 10th grade (when we moved away). We had the most fun (lots of games and silly fun with whipped cream, projects, and outings) and the most revealing discussion about ethics, life choices, writing, and art. My daughter and I still keep in touch with that group (which is ongoing). I think this dovetails into the points about reading as a shared family endeavor. Conversations about the books we read for the mother/daughter book group often spilled into dinner-table conversation and included other family members and would then tweak more discussion on other books. I agree that the reading experience is a smaller experience if it's kept distinct from a social context -- especially when family is that social context.
Great response to the false dichotomies and heirarchies we set up by categorizing different kinds of readers. I love the way your article meanders between the private and public, from Virginia Woolf to your own experiences as a mother/writer/reader. As a reluctant member of any kind of social reading group, as an admittedly choosy reader when it comes to selecting the books that clutter my life, as a teacher and writer and editor myself, and as a mother who reads with her kids almost every single day, I love how you end up with the central idea that reading is all about creating a network of encouragement. This column was a pleasure to read! Thanks. -Michelle Elvy
Thanks for this thoughtful post on reading, Rebecca. I also come from a reading family but have come to realize that many don't. I also agree that "social reading" can take many forms. At my daughter's school they also have the reading partner tradition and I think it's a great way to get kids thinking about reading as a shared/public activity. Cheers Delia Lloyd
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