On Social Reading and the Library

It has taken me a while to get the hang of this social reading thing. There would have been a point, not too many years ago, when I would have defined reading as “a strategy to avoid socializing.” The idea of posting my reading on Goodreads for the whole (theoretical) world to see, for example? Anathema. Yes, looking back on it, the self I was then would probably have stopped, scowled, and blown a dour cloud of cigarette smoke at my current self. So, you run a writing group in a public library and “blog” and is it really necessary to bestow five stars upon Lolita, man? And then he would have descended back into the basement where he was reading William Gaddis.

I think when I was younger, I used books to wall myself off from others to a certain extent. On high school lunch hour, I’d crouch in the hall over a bruised trade paperback of Camus or Dostoevsky, and all attempts to engage me would be met with the rebuke of the authors’ names themselves, Camus or Dostoevsky spoken with a sneer, the translation: “Get out of my face.” I probably wasn’t the greatest advertisement for European lit in suburban Minneapolis. But I didn’t want to be. There was, in my mind, an inverse ratio between the number of people experiencing something and how worthwhile that thing was.

This is a picture of me a few years ago, by the way:

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These days, I’m still the same pretentious dork. I spend a lot of time reading books by writers nobody has heard of. But more and more, I see the value in the conversations going on around books. Reading isn’t some solitary, teleological struggle to get through as much as you can before you die; it’s a deeply social, cultural act that can be enriched by bringing those books into conversations with others. And in fact, those conversations are what keep books alive.

So this is where Central Library comes in. I’ve been working here four months and the building itself can still knock you down with its beauty. There’s a reason this place just won the ALA/AIA award for the best library building in North America. You should come here just to see the facade lit up at night. But it’s not just the beauty of this building that matters, but the things that go on inside.

In addition to a certain writing group that gives this blog its name, there are a number of great book clubs at Central Library where you can truly connect with others — and I don’t mean the kind of connection where you push a button, but on a significant level.

The original Central Book Discussion Group has recently read titles including The Plot Against America, Gone Girl, Please Look After Mom, and Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Central Book Group Too reads contemporary works as well — they’ve recently discussed titles both fiction and non- by Zadie Smith, Susannah Cahalan, and Oliver Sacks. They usually convene at the Schlafly Bottleworks, which can’t hurt.

Fans of Palahniuk and Bukowski will want to check out Joe Schwartz’s group Read Like a Man. A writer himself, with three books now in print, Joe is also a consummate entertainer and whatever else happens in this club, I can promise you won’t be bored. There’s also a Classic Science Fiction reading group meeting at Central, unpacking the masters from Wells to Bradbury.

For the nonfiction-inclined, head to the Science and Technology Room. Home cooks can trade recipes and learn cooking techniques at the Culinary Reading Group — with visits from guest chefs, and upcoming sessions on barbeque and appetizers just in time for summer. Forward-thinking professionals can talk over new ideas and innovations at Business Reads, which is featuring Jake Breeden’s Tipping Sacred Cows and Peter Shankman’s Nice Companies Finish First in the months to come. These groups are both coordinated by Spruce Fraser, SLPL’s Science, Technology, and Patent and Trademark Librarian.

Nonprofit Reads features titles selected by SLPL’s social services librarian, Kimberly Parks.

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Getting more comfortable with social reading has made me a much happier, more relaxed person, as you can see. And spending time at the St. Louis Public Library, exchanging ideas with your fellow citizens in this stunning building — it’s a great way to shake off the fuzz from staring at your computer screen. The library in which I write this was intended to be a forum and a meeting place as well as a repository of knowledge. It belongs to us all.

Full details on all upcoming Central book discussion groups can be found here.

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