when books go social

"I hate when students underline their books with those ridiculous pencils," a teacher begins.

"Why does it spark such a strong reaction?"

"A page should be fresh each time one reads it.  Let a student start with a pure page, free of the viewpoints of other readers.  Whether you like it or not, reading is a solitary endeavor and I'd like to keep it that way."

"Yes, but reading only became solitary with the advent of the printing press.  Before that, when the resources were scarce, reading had to be social.  So, people shared books, read books aloud, listened intently and spoke together.  It has been a communal endeavor more often than individual."

"But we progressed toward individuality. Students now have access to books through our library.  They share, but it's sharing on an individual level," she answers just like that, with thick italics.

"So, what if pencil is another form of progress?  What if the pencil enables reading to be both social and individual?  What if students can now read a book but also interact with it and share in an asynchronous dialog with past readers?  What if they learn more from a book by the writing in the margins?"

"Or what if the social aspects of reading simply distract?  What if they're too distracted by all forms of social media - from the loud phonograph to the emerging motion picture industry to the pen pal networks and the instant information on the telegraph?  What if learning needs a little loneliness?  What if solitude is good for the mind?"

We're at an impasse, both realizing that arguments are not games to be won, but neither of us humble enough to admit it.  So we wait in silence and I finally ask, "Is that egg salad?  It looks delicious."


  1. I don't have enough time to explore this as much as I would like too! I've made the journey from sacred text to common dialog. It is now to the point where a student will look at me in shock when I lightly underline a word in the textbook for emphasis.

    I once had a reasonably good student brag that he had never read a book in the four years he was in my literature courses. He simply audited my commentary and student discussion. He based his own responses on that. I was not impressed at the time. Now I realize I am skipping most of the direct reading in my own professional development. I am relying heavily on second hand accounts and the cloud of discourse.

    My initial reading does need a bit of loneliness though.

  2. I was reading on the Kindle app on an iPad last night (the future is crazy, Tom) and parts of the book were "socially highlighted" meaning that multiple people who had read the book had highlighted it, so it showed up as a faint underline in my copy.

    I did turn the feature off, though, as the first time I'm reading through a book I don't want to be distracted by other folks' highlights. I felt like it gave certain sections a false-superiority. I think the feature is great, especially the fact that I can turn it off. After I read the book once and make my own annotations, I'll go back through and see what others have noted.

  3. Anonymous7:37:00 AM

    One of the teachers at my son's school *requires* students to highlight or underline their books. I regard this as a state of sin---I've never seen a student highlight the right things on the first reading, and once a book has been highlighted there is no way to undo the damage.

    E-books do have the advantage of being able to turn off the highlighting, though I don't think this compensates for their numerous disadvantages.

  4. So what's crazy about this post is that I didn't write it with allegory or metaphor in mind. It started with a conversation amongst colleagues about whether kids should write in their books and it's been the comments that have provoked thought.

  5. This post has really given me some "food for thought". I have to admit the comment about your own personal experience with professional development reading hit home with me. I, too am guilty of relying on classmate discussion of texts rather than reading it myself.

    As I'm leaving the classroom for the librarian position in my building in the fall, I think I'll begin an experiment with the staff in the form of a novel that gets passed around in which the readers make comments, underline etc... directly on the pages. I have wanted to do this for a while anyway, but need to think of a cool catch phrase. It will be interesting to see what my colleagues think about the concept and if anyone decides to try it out with students although monitoring comments would be a serious challenge!

    I had no idea my Kindle had that group highlighting function which may help build my case for acquiring a few for our students to check out!

  6. The writing in the margins should be approached as a tool. These writings offer clarification and a variation of views. The view points of others challenge our beliefs, helping us to either expand our field of thought or help to confirm what we already believed. Yes, students need to be able to think for themselves, but another person’s notes can initiate a debate a student’s mind. Is there a more thought provoking encounter than a debate?

    Jillian LeRouge, Elementary Education Major
    The University of South Alabama
    Dr. Strage’s Class, EDM 310