Thursday, June 4, 2009

Doing it in Public: Reading as Subversive Activity

I just discovered the delightful group library blog Closed Stacks, and one particular (old) post caught my attention: Read and you read alone.

Blogger The Librarienne suggest that one reason Americans don't read as much as we'd hope is that reading is a solitary activity, seen as frivolous and slightly suspect.

I've never sensed disdain for my own reading in public, and I think there are definitely places where it's widely understood: on public transit, for example, or in coffeehouses. Waiting rooms seem to be precisely one of those places, and I'd get downright huffy if someone tried to interrupt me there, as they did to one of the commenters.

I will freely admit that I've never tried to read in a bar (too dark!). Plus, I openly mocked a fellow who showed up to a bowling alley with a copy of Ulysses, of all things. As The Librarienne points out, reading is a solitary pleasure, and so voluntarily coming to a group social event with a book is just plain rude. (It did not help matters when he tried to use Joyce as a pick-up line.)

But I think the point about reading at work, as opposed to web surfing, is very well put. In the novel of corporate life Then We Came to the End, there's a wonderful passage describing how a quiet company rebel photocopies entire novels so he can read them at his desk, passing them off as memos. Reading seems to somehow more flagrantly flaunt one's duty than playing solitaire or chatting with co-workers.

Even though as librarians, we should value reading more, I've internalized this myself at my own library. On the recommendation of Robin Brown, I just borrowed a copy of Reading and the Reference Librarian. The central argument of the book is that reading widely makes us better at what we do - and I still feel guilty for reading it at work!

But I actually think there's good reason for this. What's different about reading books, what we value about books, is a depth of absorption, immersion in an argument or imagined world. That absorption can cause us to fail to notice patrons who need our attention, or we might be slow to snap out of it and refocus on work.*

But this isn't some hatred of reading, or a desire to stamp out "frivolous" reading. Instead, it's actually a mark of respect for reading and the real power books have over our imaginations.

So what, as The Librarianne asks, is to be done? At work, if the reading really is work related, I think we can try to carve out blocks of time and clearly label the activity - "This afternoon I'm reviewing books for our collection"; "Tomorrow I'm reading for the literature review for my next article on outreach."

For the public in general, I also think that the Dillingham editorial is absolutely right that one of the big problems is noise. If you want to read in a coffeeshop, you can ask them to turn down the music - or just take your business to a quieter place. Ask the receptionist in a doctor's office or the laundromat manager to turn off the television if no one's watching. (You don't have to tell them you're a librarian as you do all this shushing.)

Books captivate us. Some people do have first dibs on our attention (employers), but the general public doesn't. If they try to claim it, you could always start reading out loud. ;)

* (To be fair, this applies to other media as well - a boss who ignores Minesweeper will probably notice World of Warcraft.)

1 comment:

Teri said...

This is a very interesting post and point. I can really relate to the embarrassment about reading at work - at my old job, where I had an office with shuttered windows and a closed door, I would read during every lunch break, working my way through tons of books. Now that I am in a cubicle I always feel vaguely nervous about reading where people can see me, even if I'm legitimately on break.

I don't experience that nervousness in other public areas - I've read in diners, waiting in long lines, on commutes (that would be the only reason I miss my train commute - all the reading), in parks, etc. Because my family loves books so much, I've sometimes even read in public with a group of other people.

But for some reason, there in my cubicle, it feels like I'm somehow shirking my duties (or will look like I'm shirking my duties) to read a book, so I surf the web instead. I think this may be because I feel like web-surfing could also be seen as shirking my duties (even if I was eating lunch) and that's easier to hide.

And I've never even tried to play World of Warcraft at work (or Minesweeper, for that matter)...I think I'd need a real office for that. ;)

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Libri & Libertas: Books & Freedom in a Web 2.0 World by Laura H. Wimberley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Noncommercial - Share Alike 3.0 United States License.