Friday, January 27, 2012

The end of books?

I keep reading and my reflections keep changing.  Robert Coover's article about a class in writing novels using hypertext in the 1990s suggests that e-books that use hypertext can't be read in print.  The non-linear format does not fit the linear format of what many of us recognize as a book.  It's interesting that he does refer to my concern about technology changes: " its hardware and software seem to be fragile and short-lived; whole new generations of equipment and programs arrive before we can finish reading the instructions of the old." para 19. 

An interesting question he raises is one of closure. When does the story end and if an author writes a hypertext novel, are they obligated to keep the story going?

I recall a History of the Novel class I studied in university where we looked at how stories were told in the beginning and how that has changed.

Perhaps hypertext novels are a new genre. We're not just talking about taking a 'print' novel and putting it into electronic format, although that has been my limited  understanding until now. 


  1. Hey, Kim, thanks for sharing your comments about the Coover article. I admit, it was one of the most accessible readings in the read, and it did, for better or for worse, get me thinking.

    What I am wrestling with -- in large part, perhaps, because I have not experienced a hypertext novel. I am, however, listening to I Just Wasn't Made For These Times from Pet Sounds -- is how the purported advantages of hypertexts differ in form and not just degree from active reading of traditional texts.

    I mean, are we really under the domination of an author when we read a traditional novel? Isn't it possible that the ability to marshal thoughts into prose in a linear offering qualifies an author as a possible authority, by virtue of his or her triumph over centrifugal force? I mean, could I somehow as a hypertext co-author of Pride and Prejudice have made the experience of reading it somehow deeper and more profound? Why do we distrust the desire for coherence? Have we somehow smuggled in an epistemological bias against the possibility of knowledge, certainty, truth?

    As someone who made his fame from the ability to fork his thoughts and image this way and that, Dylan says you gotta serve somebody. So, how free are you when you co-author everything? Doesn't that just keep me listening to myself? Isn't it better to somehow get out of myself by following someone else's line, and then judging it, or having it judge me?

    In all the talk of hypertext, there recurs the image of the exitless maze, but how cool is that? Aren't we programmed by a narrative gene to want an ending? Do our ships never reach port?

    Can't a reader bring a hypertext sensibility to traditionally printed material? I mean, when you read the Gettysburg Address, and you hear that the meter resembles The Lord's Prayer, isn't that a hypertext-style linkage that illuminates, perhaps, the intention of the author?

    Indeed, writes Coover, the creative imagination often becomes more preoccupied with linkage, routing and mapping that with statement or style, or with what we would call character or plot....(707-8)

    Six degrees of Kevin Bacon, sure. But are the movies great?

  2. Kim and Glenn, thanks for getting this discussion rolling. I've found this a bit of an overwhelming topic to frame my thoughts on, but I'll try to be as concise as possible!

    I agree with William Germano's statement in "What are Books Good For" (Wk 3 lecture notes) that "historians have demonstrated...good technologies don't eradicate earlier good technologies". This seems particularly apt to me in comparing hypertext writing with traditional narrative structure. The hypertext novel may live alongside traditional books (be they on paper or electronic) but is unlikely to supplant linear narrative.

    Sometimes, we might want to be produsers/prosumers - creating text, creating alternative endings, etc. But I think we're hardwired to love - in fact, need - stories with beginnings and endings. This essential narrative structure is not something that was imposed on us during the Enlightenment, or in the era following the invention of the printing press. Story telling - of the traditional narrative sort - exists in all the cultures I'm aware of, literate or not.

    In non-literate societies, the fireside retelling of stories would have been less about unique authorship and more about collaborative contribution - but, at least in the form that those stories have been passed on to future generations - they've included an "In the beginning..." and a "...they lived happily/unhappily ever after". Those who have lived with small children will recognize how hardwired the need for plot and character-driven story telling is!

    Germano points out that, "Books take ideas and set them down, transforming them...into thinking usable by others...books are luminous versions of our ideas, bound by narrative structure so that others can encounter those better, smarter versions of us on the page or screen." This is in fact what I appreciate so much about books with narrative structure. The author has done the heavy lifting of sifting and organizing thoughts. I then get to sit down and reap the benefits of their intellectual labours - the path is already set for my reading ease and enjoyment.

    I talked to my 17-year-old daughter about this this morning as I was curious about her take on this in light of the inevitable mention of a digital native/digital immigrant divide in discussions on the future of books. She said she's not drawn to reading hypertext narrative, because of the rabbit-hole aspect. Despite our generational divide, she, like me, enjoys sitting down and enjoying the structure that another mind has created, without having to think about whether she's chosen the right link or whether she'll be able to get back to the same place in the narrative.

    I was struck by a statement in Sarah Lloyd's piece on the future of publishing. She argues that "digital natives" will expect "more involvement" in creation of content. She gives the examples of the fan communities built around the Harry Potter series. The point that she leaves out is this: those communities only came together once compelling stories had already been told - in old fashioned narrative format. The communities she refers to are responding as contributors to new content; JK Rowling's books still stand as the touchstone for these communities. In this case, hypertext writing lives alongside the traditional forms of book and film: complementing, but not supplanting.

  3. These are great comments on the future of the book. I was thinking about narrative, too, and the tradition of story telling, but I'm less certain that we will always tell stories the way we have told them. We haven't had this capacity to link and leap before and I don't think we can really know where it will all end up. However, it does remind me at times of the stereotype of the old married couple telling a story, where one person starts, then they argue about whether it was her first or second cousin, then if it was that person's daughter or niece,and then whose house they were at...and by that point we're all screaming, "It doesn't matter! Just get to the point." Which is a little bit how I feel about hypertext narrative and digital art installations sometimes.

  4. Komori - I think you are very insightful when you note Sarah Lloyd's failure to note that these particular fan communities have grown out of very real and *traditional* narrative books. But you add the word compelling and I think that's key. For hypertext, new media narrative, creative technology, transliterate texts etc...we need compelling narrative. I also agree that (most) readers (when reading for enjoyment) would like a beginning, middle and end but perhaps the order won't be so structured. And, perhaps, we as readers will become more *editor* and fill in our endings as Fish, Iser et al suggested decades ago. As strong readers we give the responses, we fill in those gaps. Sure as children we might require more signposting (as in the "once upon a time" phrase etc...) but as we grown and become more experienced, perhaps those rabbit holes in narratives are more opportunities to play author and craft our understanding.