Saturday, April 17, 2010


Thrice this past week, I either witnessed or was part of a conversation based on a book, newspaper, or magazine carried on the subway.

In the first incident, I was reading a New York Times article about the eminent closing of Saint Vincent's Hospital. A woman to my right saw the headline from over my shoulder and began to chat with me about this turn of events. (Turns out she used to work for the hospital.)

The second time, a young woman saw me reading the article "125 Women Who Changed Our World" 125th Anniversary Collector's Issue of Good Housekeeping Magazine. (See: A Report Back from Shine On, Good Housekeeping's 125th Anniversary Celebration). She asked me about the article and the magazine and we began a nice conversation. I wish we could have kept talking, but I had to get out at my stop.

Today, on my way to an orientation at BCAT, a man on the subway struck up a chat with the gentleman next to him about the book that he was reading at that moment.

Folks, the moral of these three stories is that there is power in the physicality of the newspaper, book and magazine. With these objects in hand, our neighbors can recognize what we are reading/interested in/thinking about (and vice versa) and this is how meaningful dialogue is born.

If someone is reading a book on the iPad or another electronic device, how the heck are we supposed to start up conversation (besides one about the iPad)? I'm not saying that everyone wants to chat about what they are reading, but the potential for connection is lost if there is no possibility for recognition of what our neighbor is looking at.

I imagine that in The Days of Yore, before the advent of the Internet, people gathered in barber shops, beauty parlors, cafes, and other social places, with magazines or newspapers or books in hand, and used those babies as fodder for banter about current events.

Now that so many noses are buried in electronic contraptions, less of that public banter is possible.

When I taught family literacy workshops in Manhattan's public schools, I showed parents how most of the pleasure of reading with children is derived from shared social experience. You look at the book together, turn the pages together, talk about whatever the book makes you think about.

I think that adults derive a similar pleasure from the shared social meaning and experience of the written word.

Does anyone remember reading the Sunday comic strips with their dad? A lot of rituals like that have everything to do with the physical act of looking at the paper together. How can families share the joy of anything that is print-based if everyone is off in a corner on his or her computer?

It's true that electronic forms of our favorite reading matter make it possible for us to travel with those texts with great ease and convenience. At the same time, e-devices also transform reading into a purely individual act, devoid of potential for interesting interactions with fellow/sister humans.

Where is the love in that?
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