With 'Social Reading,' Books Become Places to Meet

Stephen Duncombe, a professor who has created an online version of Thomas More's "Utopia," says he wanted to make a book of the future, "not just something bound between two covers, and words on a page."

'Social Reading' Projects Bring Commentary Into the Text 1

Photo by Keith Miller

Stephen Duncombe thought he knew what he was going to do with his time off. "It was my sabbatical year, and what you do during a sabbatical year is you sit down and write a book," said Mr. Duncombe, an associate professor of media and culture at New York University. "I had a book planned, and I walked into a bookstore and thought, 'I can't do that.'"
Instead of writing a conventional monograph, he decided to experiment, aiming to move toward "what a book might look like in the future, when it's not just something bound between two covers, and words on a page."

The result of his sabbatical labors has just gone live. Called Open Utopia, it's a free, online version of Thomas More's Utopia that anyone can browse—and annotate. An example of what's sometimes called social reading, Open Utopia builds on the idea that a book doesn't have to be a static text. Online, a book can be a gathering place, a shared space where readers record their reactions and conversations. Those interactions ultimately become part of the book too, a kind of amplified marginalia.
"We live in a world where people can talk back to their books," Mr. Duncombe told me.
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