ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Reading a book is a solitary act, at least once you're out of grade school. But the institution of the book club, the collective act of discussing a book usually kicks in after you're finished with the reading. Well, now, there's a Web site that lets people chat about what they're reading as they read it.
NPR's Laura Sydell has that story.
LAURA SYDELL: BookGlutton.com was born because Travis Alber wanted to be able to talk about books with friends who had moved away. So, Alber and a friend created a site that lets you write in the margins of an online book as you read.
Ms. TRAVIS ALBER (Co-Founder, BookGlutton.com): You can chat inside any chapter of the book, or you can click on any paragraph and attach a comment to it, and someone else can come past that point in the book later and respond to that or make a different comment.
SYDELL: The site has been getting a lot of interest from teachers like Jessamyn Hatcher, a professor of English at New York University. She asked her class to use BookGlutton to read "King Lear." Hatcher says it was perfect for reading a text as complex and poetic as Shakespeare. Take Lear's speech that begins: O reason not the need. Our basest beggars are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Professor JESSAMYN HATCHER (English, New York University): This is a really difficult passage, and he's talking to his daughters. He goes on to say that he doesn't need his retinue of men, just as they don't need their beautiful clothing.
SYDELL: Students reading the text outside class late at night began to have online debates. They wondered whether Lear meant that clothing in excess was unimportant to being human or whether he meant that those were the things that make us human. One of Hatcher's students, Lila Tod, says she loved those online debates.
Ms. LILA TOD (Student, New York University): It was really nice because people could say their different point of view, like, well, I saw this as something different, kind of just like you would do in class, but we were outside of class.
SYDELL: By the time Tod and the other students got to class, they were ready, says Hatcher.
Prof. HATCHER: They were already deeply engaged. They'd been having these conversations in the margins all night long. And I think this allowed our conversations to be deeper and richer than they would have been otherwise.
SYDELL: Right now, BookGlutton is still a pretty small site. It has about 1,500 public domain books and about 120,000 readers a month. But BookGlutton founders are already having conversations with publishers that would expand their library.
Just today, Random House announced chapters from bestselling author Sarah Dunant's next book would be on the site with author commentary.
Leah Price, a professor of English at Harvard University, believes this is the beginning of a change in how we read books. She says it's only a matter of time before technology like BookGlutton's unites with popular eBooks like Amazon's Kindle or Sony's eReader.
Professor LEAH PRICE (English, Harvard University): There is something frustrating about reading on a Kindle because the fact that you're reading onscreen makes you expect, oh, I should be able to click through on this. I should be able to Google this name.
SYDELL: Price has no doubt that within the next decade, no one will feel that frustration anymore. Yet at the same time, in a world in which all of us are connected no matter where we are, there is a strong attachment to old-fashioned books. Even young people, like NYU student Lila Tod, have reservations about fully connected eBooks.
Ms. TOD: And it would be hard for me to not get distracted by other things because I can very easily be distracted by what's around me. And when I'm reading, I can kind of hyperfocus, and I don't know if it would be the same.
SYDELL: Tod says she's always liked the quiet dialogue between the words on the page and her own imagination, the possibility that she could come up with her own idea what a character looked like without anyone else's ideas intruding on her own fantasies. But the forces that are moving all of us towards a more interconnected world aren't likely to be stopped by readers' love for old-fashioned books.
Laura Sydell, NPR News.
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