Solo sailing

Contrary to watching a film or a play, reading a book is a strictly solitary activity. And writing, especially the kind that is routinely described as creative, is equally solitary.

Performative reading may work in groups, but that is a different type of reading from the one that we usually do in our culture. The mind is a very jealous god when it comes to cognitive reading. It won’t allow others access to it, nor does it benefit from having multiple minds pull the strings of text-reading. One won’t read faster because others are reading the same thing at the same time, nor will comprehension quality increase as a result of pondering the same text together. Sharing insights will, but that is when the reading has been completed.

The mind is truly solo, which is a frightening thing to fathom. We’re really on our own as readers, which makes reading, thus seen, a deeply antisocial activity.

But friends of the history of reading and of this blog will know that silent reading, the kind of reading dominating, almost exclusively, modern culture, was not always the protagonist in the drama of human reading. Reading silently to ourselves in an (ideally) quiet environment is a feature of modernity. The ancient Greeks and Romans for instance thrived on reading parties, and that when there wasn’t someone else, a scribe or a slave (usually the same person), to read to them. But even then, the performative reader was, as our own experience shows, unlikely to get as much out of reading the text as the audience hungry for his or her words. Even with others, the mind launches itself in solo sailing.

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