World Book Night 2020 coincided with the beginning of Covid lockdown in the UK. At a moment when many public events were being put on ice, The Reading Agency, an organization dedicated to promoting wellbeing through reading, announced that the celebration would go ahead anyway. But April 23 would be a World Book Night with a difference. Because ‘reading connects a nation in self-isolation,’ the Agency offered a suite of alternatives: virtual parties, digital activities, and author broadcasts. An approved list of books was provided and members of the public were encouraged to turn collectively to print because reading was not only proven to ‘improve mental health, self-esteem, empathy, concentration, sleeping patterns and more.’ As one organizer put it, books have ‘the power to . . . connect us up in these difficult times.’
Reading has long had an important part to play in building social relationships, mediated with others through the intimate psychological experience of the sharing and discussion of print. Benedict Anderson famously characterised reading audiences as ‘imagined communities’. Even when they were separated by thousands of miles with no hope of meeting, Anderson maintained that colonial readers of the past could connect with one another through print.
But this is only half the story. Back in the 1960s, the Canadian sociologist, Irving Goffman (1922-1982) talked about the importance of what he called ‘civil inattention’ to describe the processes of social disengagement that can take place in public spaces. One aspect of the way in which individuals regulated their relations with others, Goffman observed, was through the use of media. As an ‘involvement shield’ its ultimate purpose was not to connect with others but to inhibit intimacy. Anyone who has been on the London Underground at rush hour as strangers around them are immersed in their books and newspapers will know what Goffman was talking about.
There is nothing new in this form of behaviour of course. Nineteenth-century emigrants, finding themselves for weeks and months in the company of strangers, used books as protection against other shipboard passengers. Richard Altick remarked that common readers in Victorian working-class communities were often ‘subjected to the ridicule, or at best the well-meant disapproval, of those who failed to share one’s inclination.’ How much more would similar social pressure be brought to bear in the close confines between decks? Stephen Colclough and David Vincent’s observation that ‘entering the secret world of print amidst the bustle of the crowded household required immense concentration and a capacity to withstand resentment at the withdrawal from its sociability’ might be applied, perhaps even moreso, to strangers in steerage. There is evidence of passengers on more than one emigrant ship suffering ridicule for time spent reading and writing.
On the British National Antarctic Expedition (1901-04) an extensive library was used by the men on board Discovery. It was a communal resource, often resorted to for mutual entertainment, argument, and conversational exchange. Just as often, though, it served many solitary pursuits. In the close quarters of the ship, men would often retire to their cabins, making reading the pretext for finding time alone. Elizabeth Leane finds an analogy for Antarctic reading in the way that splinters of ice break away from an iceberg to form their own independent bodies: ‘text acted like ice in Heroic-Era expeditions, at times insulating expedition members from those around them, calving off little imaginative islands on which they could maroon themselves; and at other times solidifying the gaps between them.’
Today we have considerably more sophisticated means of tuning out the presence of others than our forbears. For all their online reading groups and social networks, today’s travelers have their Ipods, Kindles, and mobile phones, all suggesting that Goffman’s involvement shield has never been more relevant.