Posted by: Steven Harris | March 3, 2008

Talkin’ Books

I’ve been spending some time in Second Life lately [understatement]. My library does not have a presence there and I’m only superficially involved in any of the library development there. Nonetheless (and sadly, I suppose), I spend most of my time with librarians, just hanging out and acting goofy. One of the things I have done is conduct a couple of book talks: one of Everything is Miscellaneous by David Weinberger, and the other of Beowulf and John Gardner’s modern take on the story, Grendel.

It has been difficult but fun doing books talks in Second Life. I plan to continue. The first 2 discussions were books I chose. As a means of finding out what people want to talk about, I created a survey on SurveyMonkey, basically asking what kinds of books people wanted to discuss. One of free-text responses went something like this (paraphrase): “Read a book, or go explore or build something in Second Life. Why waste time discussing books.”

Why indeed? I find the question interesting and amusing. Second Life, while it is a nice place to visualize things and create virtual objects, is largely about meeting like minded people, socializing with them, and collaborating on projects. In short, forming a community. The audience for my survey was primarily librarians, people who still read books in fair numbers. I figured they would be interested in talking about books. Librarians in the real world, in fact, have often made it their business to encourage reading through book talks and discussion groups. It is a great outreach tool and an excellent way of enable communities within your community.

The very basis of humanism is, of course, the discussion of cultural objects. To what end? First, it does help you find like-minded people, to form relationships, friendship even. Next, it helps you understand your own thinking about the book (or other object). You can develop more substantive ideas if you verbalize them and put them into the world. Finally, perhaps you will change your mind about the book. Seeing things from and hearing about a different perspective will reveal things you hadn’t thought about. It will make the experience of the book, or painting, or opera, or play richer and more nuanced.

The notion that art or culture “just is” and we should simply consume whatever is placed before us without comment, is very dangerous. A world where we stared in awed silence at all art objects, without comment, is scary. A nation that would forbid its citizens from commenting about its own culture is totalitarian. In a free country, people can think about why things are the way they are, and talk about it with other people, and form groups that facilitate the discussion. Talking about books is just one way of taking freedom seriously.

Humans talk. Humans communicate. To say that talking about books is a waste of time is rather beside the point. People talk about many more trivial things than books. But if talking about books helps people form relationships with other people, I’m all for it. For the person who asked this question, I wonder what the point of building things in Second Life is. Do they want to build something that no one sees? Do they want to build something that is not used? Do they want no feedback or appreciation expressed about their work? I think not. I think they would welcome some kind of response.

Any artists wants to make a connection with other people. That connection can branch out like a web to other people who have formed a similar connection. Libraries can be part of that web or network. In a 2.0 world we should encourage and enable these kinds of connections as much as possible.

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