There’s something magic about reading. Concentrated reading expands the world of experience and opens up fields of perception that in reality remain closed. Readers experience more than a single life has to offer, or in the words of Henri Michaux, “Who in his or her entire life even had just ten seconds as a tiger?” Readers switch off from their environment and devote themselves fully to reading, as Paul Verlaine summarized it in wordplay, “Tout de même on se livre.” It never ceases to amaze how many readers on buses and trains brave the public tumult in this way.
Peter Bichsel is this kind of reader who devotes time and leisure to his reading. True, when he was once asked which book he would take to a desert island, he gave the surprising answer, “I wouldn’t take a single book to the island because (…) I must at least be able to say that I’ve been reading.”
So reading is also a social gesture. You have to discuss books. In the days of analogue media, reading societies and reading circles existed for this. The newly created online reading salons could become a counterpart in the digital world. In 2014 the Süddeutsche Zeitung opened this type of salon on a trial basis and currently the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung experiments with this. Its reading salon is available on websites of sobooks.de. Users who have logged in and selected a book from the choices can mark sections of text and add comments, which other readers can add their comments on. But just one text sample is available free of charge. Anyone who wants to read more must buy the ebook – the hardback edition at home is no help.
The trial with the example of Jenny Erpenbeck’s Gehen, ging, gegangen (Going, Went, Gone) demonstrates right from the start the problem with this kind of reading salon. Is it helpful for the discussion if sections of text are commented with “What a miserable start” or “The pleb says…?” Maybe these sorts of remarks are useful for a cosy and private tête à tête – but in public such criticisms quickly appear bad-tempered, know-it-all and jarring. While comments on comments can quickly get to the heart of the actual issue, the text as a whole is in danger of rapidly being lost from view.
A little more practice is needed with such tools. The public factor has the advantage that new users join in, yet also the disadvantage that we cannot choose our discussion partners. However, this is often desirable to cultivate a trusting basis for understanding. But whatever the case – the experience can still be fascinating.
PS: Socialbook, a technically non-optimized platform, continues to offer a private alternative at https://www.livemargin.com. This enables the set-up of group reading sessions.
By Beat Mazenauer
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright