One of the reasons I set out to read along with the Meanjin Tournament of Books was because I’m interested in the idea of shared reading experiences.
‘Social reading’ is a phrase that we are starting to hear more of, and there has been an increase in places where and ways that readers can connect with each other about all things bookish. Offline, I’ve noticed book clubs and reading groups gaining popularity over the past decade or so, at least within my (admittedly quite literary) social circles. Online, there has been a rise in literary social networking sites, like Goodreads or LibraryThing. But what I am interested in goes beyond the simply social to the shared, or collective, reading experience.
As a writer, literary festival director and known reading enthusiast, I am lucky enough to get to talk about books all the time. But in these conversations, as with literary networking sites, the connections can be random, and it can depend on luck to find others reading what you are reading at that exact moment that you want to talk about it.
If only each book came with its own Twitter hashtag! One of the greatest things the hashtag has given us is the ability to connect with people we don’t know on a topic that we have a shared desire to discuss. But it only works when there is a set hashtag for the topic – and of course, many people are not on Twitter at all.
I consider collective reading every time I see #qanda tweets flood my timeline on a Monday night. Is there a way we could make book reading a shared experience the way that tweeting Q&A has become a collective viewing experience? Of course, it’s easier with TV: it has mass appeal, it’s free, shows are on at a set time, and we all consume the media at the same rate. But why not try it with books, too?
A few years ago I was excited about the State Library of Victoria’s Summer Read program for the same reason. In December 2008, the SLV published a list of twenty diverse books, invited Victorians to read along, published an author blog, toured the authors to library events around the state, and ran a competition for readers to choose their favourite book. I joined in, blogged it, and loved it. (Yes, I am a book nerd and a joiner, what of it?)
I don’t just enjoy talking to people about books I have read; I also love the idea of having a shared reading experience, discovering new books, and being one of a community of people reading the same book(s) at the same time. The Summer Read program and Meanjin Tournament of Books were satisfying for me because they created the opportunity to engage in those activities.
The successful elements of a shared reading campaign are: having a central hub that encourages participation; and creating multiple places for people to discuss their experiences. We see this working well at festivals and conferences, and we’ve seen a rise in literary social media, so why don’t we see more events that combine the two things? And why do some reading campaigns undervalue the social aspect? It seems to me that the recent Get Reading campaign could easily have had a much larger impact if it had embraced the social reading concept. The social media channels that Get Reading used – including Facebook, Twitter and a news feed – were wholly dedicated to publishing press announcements and directing people to the campaign’s website. Although there was a discussion forum on the site, there is little content on it. Without knowing how effective the campaign was in terms of books read or sold, I believe that ‘Australia’s largest celebration of books’ could easily have increased its scope and participation with just a few simple changes to their marketing campaign – for example, by publishing a hashtag and using social media to start discussions, rather than simply broadcasting media mentions. Containing conversation to the website, media appearances, and a handful of live author events seems like a missed opportunity to sincerely engage the reading public.
I predict (or hope, really) that we will see a rise in shared reading events. Though I think the Meanjin Tournament of Books is a great example of how it can work, I would like to see collective reading opportunities take place outside of the literary community also. The One City One Book idea is a great one that rallies the whole city to read the same book over the course of a month. (Melbourne, City of Literature, take note: Dublin runs a particularly good program).
Lisa Dempster is the Director of the Emerging Writers’ Festival and author of Neon Pilgrim. See MeanjinTOB – A Reader’s Note for more on Lisa’s Meanjin Tournament of Books experience.