Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Further Thoughts on Non-Linear Reading

Since I recently wrote about N.'s nonlinear reading, his habit of dipping in favorite books again and again, I was especially struck by Lev Grossman's meditation on the codex and nonlinear reading in Sunday's New York Times Book Review: 
The codex is built for nonlinear reading — not the way a Web surfer does it, aimlessly questing from document to document, but the way a deep reader does it, navigating the network of internal connections that exists within a single rich document like a novel. Indeed, the codex isn’t just another format, it’s the one for which the novel is optimized. The contemporary novel’s dense, layered language took root and grew in the codex, and it demands the kind of navigation that only the codex provides. Imagine trying to negotiate the nested, echoing labyrinth of David Mitchell’s "Cloud Atlas" if it were transcribed onto a scroll. It couldn’t be done.
God knows, there was great literature before there was the codex, and should it pass away, there will be great literature after it. But if we stop reading on paper, we should keep in mind what we’re sacrificing: that nonlinear experience, which is unique to the codex. You don’t get it from any other medium — not movies, or TV, or music or video games. The codex won out over the scroll because it did what good technologies are supposed to do: It gave readers a power they never had before, power over the flow of their own reading experience.
In the past week as I've begun my fall semester literature classes, I've been coaching my students on how to read a novel since many of them find the long, dense works of the eighteenth century challenging.  I love Grossman's idea here that true novel reading is not simply getting through to the end (that's what seems so daunting to students) but navigating the connections between pages, moving from Robinson Crusoe's island, back to his father's warnings, forward to his relations with Friday, back to his relations with Xury.  I might say that so much of college literature teaching (mine, anyway!) is leading linear-reading students through nonlinear reading, helping them discover a text's "network of internal connections."  And I see in N's nonlinear reading evidence of Grossman's claim that novel readers have a unique control of the text; N. revels in the "power over the flow of [his] own reading experience" as he moves among his favorite chapters in his favorite books.

3 comments:

Mom and Kiddo said...

As I have contemplated getting an e-reader (because we have no space to store books), I resist (but will probably eventually give in), because I fear losing the ease of peeking at the last page (yes I do that) and flipping back to reread and refresh.

Fanny Harville said...

Plus there's the deep carbon footprint of Kindle and the like: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2011-08-04/news/ct-oped-0804-books-20110804_1_publishers-commercials-ad-campaign

David M. said...

Very much like Montaigne.