The Savvy Reader: What is Seen Reading?
Julie Wilson: Seen Reading started as an online project dedicated to a practice I call “literary voyeurism.” I like to people watch, but I particularly like to watch people who read in public. Nowhere does this happen more than on public transit, where both reader and voyeur are captive for a few minutes. I’m a publishing professional, so I’m also keen to note what readers are reading so I can report back to authors and publishers.
What makes Seen Reading different from other cover spies or reader reportage is the next two steps. In Toronto, certainly, it’s not difficult to also collect the actual page number the reader was reading, especially during rush hour when to look over a person’s shoulder is no more intrusive than to ask permission to pass by. It’s as quick as a glance. Having all this information in hand, I, or one of my interns, goes to a bookstore to find the book the reader was seen reading and turn to the page they were on. I love this part, because I get to meet the reader once more within the very text they were reading during our random encounter. I collect a few sentences from the page, which leads to the final portion of each assignment, to sit back as a writer and find the intersection between all these elements: reader, book, text and my own imaginings. The result is a piece of microfiction, poetic prose, flash fiction, there are any number of names for it. I see them as glimpses, a creative response to the question, Who are you? Of course, there’s no one answer, so I’m free to imagine as widely as I’d like, which is one of the greatest joys of reading itself, to be taken somewhere you didn’t expect to go.
What inspired you to start #SeenReading?
Julie: In the next stage of Seen Reading, I want to focus less on my own sightings and more on creating a truly global movement of literary voyeurs. Once a book is sold, we can’t really know how that book was experienced, or even when. So it’s a genuine pleasure and point of pride for an author or publisher to discover that someone was seen out in the world reading their book. Using the Twitter hashtag #seenreading was the most effective and impactful way I could think to gather these sightings in one place, where anyone can jump in and post their own sightings.
How can we get involved with #SeenReading/how can we participate?
Julie: If you fancy yourself a literary voyeur, it’s as simple as adding your own sightings by using the hashtag #seenreading. I’ll also offer some tips to create the perfect tweet for maximum reach.
Vancouver. SFU. Woman, mid 20s, wearing blue hoodie. The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary by Andrew Westoll. #seenreading (114 characters)
This serves the purpose, but what if you want to up the ante? Why not include the author’s Twitter handle?
Vancouver. SFU. Woman, mid 20s, wearing blue hoodie. The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary by Andrew Westoll. (@chimpsoffauna) #seenreading (131 characters)
Want to really get some traction for your sighting? Include the publisher’s Twitter handle! But, wait! You’ll go over 140 characters. What will you sacrifice? I’d suggest . . .
Vancouver. SFU. Woman, mid 20s, wearing blue hoodie. The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary by Andrew Westoll. (@chimpsoffauna, @harpercollinsca) #seenreading (129 characters)
That elevates your original tweet from conversation-adder to conversation-starter with both the author and the publisher, who, I guarantee, will be tickled to know someone was seen reading their book in the wild. It’s worth the extra effort!
Note: Your sighting will be retweeted, so keep in mind the length of your own Twitter handle when crafting your tweet.
What can #SeenReading fans expect from the book?
Julie: Seen Reading, the book, is a distillation of a number of my reader fictions, revisited, revised and then gathered into sections that read like small chapters or suites. On the facing page, I include the original reader bio and the title of the book they were reading. It was important to hold a place for the readers within the manuscript itself, because it’s with thanks to them that this book is possible. In fact, I dedicate the book “For You.” for this very reason. Every time a person is seen reading in public, they’re visibly investing in a cultural industry. I also have to say, as far as book design goes, this one’s a beauty. Reading’s a great activity that also happens to look really good on a person! So, I highly encourage people to do it often! And, in this case, you also get the private satisfaction of knowing that you could be seen reading a book that was born out of watching just someone like you . . . reading a book. And you’ll be reading a book that ultimately serves to celebrate an entire cultural industry.
What’s your favourite #SeenReading memory?
Julie: There are many. The first is certainly most memorable and I talk about it in the prologue, a woman sitting at a bar who had to leave because she was so attached to a character and the story was about to draw to a close. She left so she could be somewhere else when it was time to say goodbye to that character. We all know that feeling, we’ve had that experience. But it was powerful enough, clearly, that I started looking at all readers differently.
I’d say the most powerful sighting, though, was a man standing in the doorway of a subway car. I’d put him in his late 30s or early 40s. He held the book he was reading close to his face, his lips moving as he traced his finger along each line of text. He was learning to read. I was struck with the realization that the only difference between me and that man was the length of time it would take us to finish a book. But we’ve have both read the same book. Literacy is something I take for granted, but after that sighting I started looking at readers in an even more awesome light, as people who commit to self-knowledge and a desire to be aware of a world outside their own. Otherwise, why would you take days, weeks, possibly months to finish one book, just to start another? It’s a beautiful investment in self as well as an industry. To that end, it won’t surprise that the next phase of Seen Reading as an online forum will also include creative partnerships with literacy efforts and organizations.
Reading’s a big deal. It’s no small feat. We have to keep on doing it and letting others know how, when and why we did, not just what we thought. Simple efforts such as marking ourselves down via #seenreading are a great start to keeping that conversation alive.
Thanks so much Julie!
Spot someone reading? Be sure to tweet with the hashtag #seenreading!