The Reader-Writer in Isolation

Franzen2

At the end of Chapter 10 “A Space of One’s Own” in A Better Pencil, Dennis Baron discusses the idea of the ‘reader-writer’; a being who is created by the multiple-authored open texts like Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary, whereby they both read and edit/author texts. Baron continues by commenting on the fact that this kind of reader-writer community creates less of an emphasis on isolation and makes reading and writing more communal: “We have come to think of reading as an isolating activity in the modern world, one that we do quietly, alone, and for ourselves. But the wiki returns reading to a communal space, inviting us to recognize the reader-writers who came before us as well as those who will follow” (206). Though Baron only touches on this idea of a formerly isolated reader who now can more readily join a community and become a part of this community through writing and reader, I want to spend a little time exploring it further.

I was reading Jonathan Franzen’s book How to Be Alone [Quotes for fun] recently, which is a book of his essays on many topics. Probably the best known essay of the book, “The Reader in Exile,” notes that even though technology does connect us to other readers and writers (and reader-writers), reading and writing are still isolated activities. Franzen takes the position that reading a physical book has become a tactic of sorts, whereby we secretly devour a medium of reading that is more passé. He also argues that though technology is currently seen by some critics as being anti-reader and might even destroy reading (reminiscent of Baron’s opposition), readers will always be drawn to books and will read and think in isolation (the development of the self, he argues, occurs inwardly, through much thought and evaluation).

In fact, Franzen argues, all of us reader-writers have become even more isolated. From a New Yorker article by Jon Michaud, where Franzen discusses his friend David Foster Wallace’s tactics in writing Infinite Jest, Franzen argues that the act of reading in this age of technology has become even more isolating rather than less isolating. The reader and the writer (and the reader-writer) might be more isolated because though there are some collaborative communities in the internet world which privilege a joint writing venture, the fact of the matter is that most writing is still done for oneself and by oneself, and most reading is either done in secret as a tactic (with physical/digital books) or collected piecemeal and distributed to us in feeds and emails and on tabs that we skim and think about and move on from.

Further, though the internet may give us a place where we can discuss books and share writings with others, this kind of collaboration was happening long before the internet in the form of book groups, public lectures, manuscript sharing, and writing workshops. That said, I’m not sure what I think about the subject, as I enjoy the fruits of both internet reading/writing and non-internet reading/writing. I am pretty convinced that, as much as we would like to praise the idea of the reader-writer, these acts (whether joint or separate) are still isolating in many of the same ways that they always were. I am also pretty sure that this sort of isolation is not a bad thing; how else can we develop inwardly as people who have struggled by themselves with complex ideas and conceptions of morality?

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9 thoughts on “The Reader-Writer in Isolation”

  1. From a less developmental point of view, I would like to agree with Katie’s assertion that reading and writing always were, always are, and most likely always will be isolating to some extent. Although pages like Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary create an open form that encourages, if not depends on, collaboration and overcoming isolation, I cannot imagine (and perhaps this is because of a lack of imagination on my part) an ideal world where reading and writing are performed in such a way that is strictly the opposite of isolating – and I’m not even sure what an appropriate term for that opposite would be because “collaboration” even on the internet still occurs at a distance, even with thru advent of video chatting technologies like Skype and Google Hangouts.

    To believe in an ideal world where reading and writing are not isolating, then, in my opinion, is almost like believing in an ideal text: it’s not going to allow for the kind of progress we really want to see. Besides, if I had to read and write under someone’s constant surveillance all in the name of dismantling isolation, I’d quickly get sick of it and refuse to do either ever again.

  2. Katie (and Chris),

    I haven’t read Franzen’s piece, so maybe that is the source of my confusion, but I’m not yet clear on what it means to say that reading is “isolating.” I take it that it means something more or different than simply an activity we do alone–since few of us read either novels or Wikipedia pages in the company of others–but then I get confused about what it does mean, and how reading online might somehow be more or less isolating than reading print. Katie, you say that “most writing is still done for oneself and by oneself,” but I’m not sure I’m convinced of that as an empirical statement. I mean, I don’t think I’m writing for myself here, and to the degree that I’m imagining you and Chris and the rest of the class as I write this, my work doesn’t feel isolating.

    I look forward to hearing more about what you and Franzen (and maybe Baron, too?) are trying to get at here.

    Joe

  3. I think this issue of “isolated” v. “collaborative” writing gets really strange when thinking about the range of meanings that collaboration takes on.

    Chris, I think I see you making a distinction between collaborative texts like Wikipedia pages versus single author texts like personal blogs (I apologize if I’m misreading!). In this sense, collaboration takes the form of active teamwork with another writer. I think the difference between this kind of writing and “isolated” single-author writing is mostly, if not always, clear, and I can definitely agree with your frustration at the idea of always having to write on a collectively created and edited text with other active writers.

    But, like Joe added, when we open up the idea of “collaborative,” we fall into issues of influence and culture that are much murkier. Even beyond the mentioned aspects of audience, purpose, and publishing context, we have the framework of social constructivism wherein even our most private, individual ideas are necessarily “collaborative” in some sense. Do we ever really write “alone”? I would argue not, I think, but it depends on how you define “alone.”

    Putting that aside somewhat, I agree with you, Katie, when you say that the idea of a “reader-writer” is not truly new and has a history in pre-digital textual production. I think this is one myth that Baron would be glad to see demystified even if he posited it in the first place : )

    1. Callie,

      I’m not necessarily trying to differentiate pages like Wikipedia from personal blogs but instead trying to suss out how they possess different dynamics between writer and reader. In my original response, I was thinking of collaboration in too physical a sense, so I definitely see the point you’re trying to raise about how a majority of digital writing is never truly “alone” because it breaks down the private vs. public dichotomy!

  4. Everyone seems to agree about the existence of collaborative writing.

    What about collaborative reading?

  5. Janel, you can’t just throw a grenade into a room and walk away! : )

    My inclination is to take the idea of collaborative reading to its parallel in social constructivism and bring in Stanley Fish or other reader-response theorists. If our entire system of perception is culturally-based (and there is nothing at all inherent in a text when divorced from a reader) then our reading strategies are also necessarily culturally-based and thus collaborative. This is something that would be true regardless of time period.

    But I don’t think that’s necessarily a very useful contribution. Perhaps it would be better to consider the ways in which our experience of reading is influenced by context, genre, and media? I feel like those might be the complementary rhetorical elements that determine the ways that we read and what kind of readers we can be.

  6. Callie and Chris–

    Just to muddy the waters even further, Wikipedia and other similar sites do have an interesting range of collaborativity though. Especially with the pages of hotly-contested topics, changes are made frequently by countless contributors, usually with the goal of maintaining objectivity. However, I love when I run across a little stub of an article in a back corner of Wikipedia–perhaps on an obscure 19th century figure, knowing my search habits–that has clearly been written mostly if not entirely by one person who is noty only knowledgeable, but has a genuine affection for what they are writing about. This entry feels slightly less matter-of-fact than most others, and while it may therefore be slightly less objective, there is the chance that because of its obscurity, that will never be “fixed.” Do we find this sort of imbalanced collaboration problematic in depositories of writing that declare themselves collaborative?

  7. Okay, so now there are multiple levels of comments and ideas here, and I think I should also step in and define Franzen’s terms better (and I’m not sure to what level I actually agree with him since he says in the essay both P and ~P) and then join this fantastically fun conversation.

    To go back to Joe’s question, which asked me to define the term “isolating” better (which was definitely lacking in my piece!), I think that Franzen and Wallace would say that this isolation directly correlates to the development of an internal thought life and the development of an internet culture which keeps people from interacting face-to-face and keeps them reading and writing in such a diverse spectrum of places that they cannot connect as deeply to other people (the kind of people who would have, pre-technology, been in their reading and writing communities).

    Now, I agree that some degree of thought that occurs in reading and writing has to happen in one’s own head (a sort of isolation, as I also believe that it is impossible to really, truly communicate every idea and experience–qualia–that one has), but I also believe that Franzen and Wallace overlook the fact that all private thoughts and mechanisms of private thoughts are pieces of cultural development.

    First, when Franzen talks about isolation, he means that not only is reading and writing done by an individual in private, but that the sort of “mulling” that happens after a reader or writer engages with an idea is an activity that has to happen by oneself (no one can work out an idea for me). I have to think through this problem; I have to write this text; I have to define my own terms.

    Franzen’s definition doesn’t account for the fact that all of the mechanisms that I–the reader, writer, or reader-writer–bring to my act of reading and writing, which includes even the physical processes of the way I type or organize my thoughts or the way that I “come at” a problem, are things that I have developed as a result of my cultural upbringing. Thus I am never truly alone because I am a scrapbook of cultural ideas and influences.

    Thus even reading is collaborative in a sense because there are no ideas individual to me (some might argue with this, and I concede that I don’t have the best arguments for my position yet). Other people and other people’s ideas are always helping me along with the development of my own ideas that I’ve gathered during reading.

    I hope this long answer adds more to the discussion. Please do ask me to define more of my terms if necessary, as I sometimes use words haphazardly.

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