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Reading over shoulders electronically

A neat piece in the Chicago Tribune by Chris Borelli on the pleasures of reading on public transit. As Borelli writes, one reason for this is the way reading on trains, planes, buses, and subways allows you to be alone in public. There is something deeply pleasurable about being immersed in something and yet still feel like you are in a crowd. (I remember my father telling me stories about the rules of reading and talking on commuter trains — this was before cellphones.)

But the other reason Borelli highlights is that you get to look around and see what other people are reading. Whether you forgot your book (or paper) or not, there is great enjoyment to be had by looking around and seeing what other people are reading. The problem is, as people move more and more to tablets, you can’t tell what they’re reading unless you get very, very close.

Borelli and I talked on the phone about this (I’ve got a little quote at the end), and he got me thinking about how electronic readers might remediate this idea of communicating about reading in public. One of the reasons we like reading in public is that we are not just by ourselves, but we are saying something about ourselves to others. Look, I’m reading [fill in the blank]. We don’t just like what books say, we like what they say about us.

All that changes of course in a world without covers. But it occurred to me that there are plenty of services right now that play off GPS data to let people know you’re nearby (Foursquare, for example). What about an app where you could select to send out notifications to anyone nearby whose interested in seeing what you’re reading. You turn it on and get an instant overview of what’s being read around you. It would give you a very precise map of a reading “landscape” and your sense of how you fit in (or don’t).

Or you could filter it to alert you if anyone is nearby reading what you’re reading. Great conversation starter — only you need to covertly slink through the subway car to find that person reading Stieg Larsson. As I said in the piece, pretty cool, but also maybe a little creepy, too.