These days, we see reading as an isolated activity. You take a book, retire to your reading nook, and don’t come out for hours. That’s how we see reading. But that’s not entirely true, and it wasn’t always the case.
In the 18th century particularly, reading was a social activity and an important one at that. As periodicals flourished, coffee houses became the places where people would read these periodicals and discuss them with each other. For women (as respectable women didn’t really have a public place for such things) it would be at the home, whether at breakfast table or in the drawing room. Reading was both a social and family activity.
You would read something, perhaps even read it out loud so that everyone can hear it, and then you would exchange your views on it. It stimulated intellectual conversations. It was an age of enlightenment when self-improvement was a prevalent idea.
Margaret J. M. Ezell said in her essay, Mr Spectator on Readers and the Conspicuous Consumption of Literature:
“…Mr. Spectator’s insistence on the public performance of reading in a social environment, whether that setting is a coffee house or a family dining room, which ties it to the older tradition of social authorship. Whether in fact his actual readers did indeed discuss its contents over breakfast, the type of reading he imagines for this format is based on the model of friends circulating manuscripts for other friends to read, to respond to, to correct, to transcribe and re-circulate texts, an ongoing participatory mode of reading, where all readers are also writers and are also actively involved in the production and distribution of new texts.” 
“Compare this to modern patterns of reading. Librarians rigorously enforce the practice of silent, isolated reading practices and panic at the mention of food and drink anywhere near a text; parents insist their children be undistracted while reading and reading at the table is positively anti-social and anti-family; adults read aloud in groups only to those who we feel cannot do so silently for themselves, such as children. Alternatively, we happily pay to sit silently while a professional performer on a stage reads aloud Shakespeare’s sonnets, pretends to be Mark Twain, presents correspondence from famous authors, or monologues from body parts, and we feel no need to respond to the reader or the text until we are safely out of the performance space. Indeed, we are rather alarmed when people who aren’t professional performers don’t read silently in public places: strangers reading aloud or sharing their opinions about their reading marks them as eccentric, ironically, asocial. Likewise, we can use our book or newspaper to ensure a solitary, silent space for ourselves in public when we wish to avoid conversation with another person sitting near us on the subway or in the waiting room. Reading for us functions as a means of creating solitude and passive silence, even in a crowded public space, the antithesis of the reading practices imagined by Mr. Spectator and his creator.” 
Yet, we haven’t completely forgotten that reading can be a social activity. Book clubs are evidence of that. The problem is we’ve been out of the habit of seeing reading as a social activity. In most households, entire families don’t read. If you wanted to read the newspaper out loud at the breakfast table, one of your family members would probably tell you to read quietly. It’s the attitude towards reading we need to change. We need to see that reading can still contribute to our intellectual stimulation, and to the betterment of our social lives, that it can elevate the level of conversations and thinking. Reading can be the best of both worlds – an ideal solitary retreat, and engaging social activity.
- Page 4, Mr Spectator on Readers and the Conspicuous Consumption of Literature, Literature Compass 1 (2003) 18C 014, Margaret J. M. Ezell
- Page 5, Mr Spectator on Readers and the Conspicuous Consumption of Literature, Literature Compass 1 (2003) 18C 014, Margaret J. M. Ezell