Philosophical Babble

Dan Visel wrote yesterday on the if:book blog about tabs and nonlinearity.

The “tab” connection — thinking of tab in all of its modern definitions, from keyboarding to physical bits of things sticking out — had little to do with his overall argument, other than acting as a point of inspiration and then an awkward chorus throughout the essay. Still, as an introduction to nonlinearity, it served well.

Visel wonders at the number of tabs he has open in his browser at any given time, some tabs open for months at a time, waiting for him to come back and read and consider them. This isn’t unusual; I do the same thing, though my record is only about a month for keeping a single tab open (I eventually gave up on it).

But then he thinks about his print reading habits, how he has a dozen or so books “in progress” at any given time. He jumps between them, picking up a shorter book while he’s already reading a longer one. Starting a new release when he hasn’t finished the one that came before, and so on.

“If something’s changed in the world of reading,” he writes, “it might be defined as a loss of linearity. Before the fall, people started reading books at the beginning, and kept on until they got to the end. Texts were read in series. Now, for better or for worse, we read things – books, texts, web pages – in parallel.”

There it is, another reference to the Eden of reading before the Fall into nonlinearity, as if there was ever a correct way to read a book. Sure, medieval scholars taught students how to read and how to annotate and gloss their texts, but that doesn’t mean the teachers’ methods were the only correct ones. It means that their methods were the most powerful at the time, the ones that students were taught.

Disclaimer: I’m digressing.

Believing that their is a right way to read a book (as the author intended?) is to believe in some overarching power or sense of organization. It is to believe that there is something in the text to be discovered.

More abstractly, it is a philosophy that holds that there is good out there, not original to me, that I may find if I do something correctly. Eternal reward awaits the penitent. Further, that good was placed wherever it is by someone or something else — whether it be a god, an author, or some other machination.

On the other hand, assuming that there is no correct way to read a text, we must believe that a reader reads for a reason, because otherwise the entire argument is moot. A person needs a good reason to spend time on something that has no apparent/inherent structure or benefit.

Why do we read? It is too easy to say we read to find meaning, because that language is biased toward she who believes there is meaning to be found in a text. Instead, the more universal reason for reading is to learn. Even if the reader believes in that Eternal Reward, she is still reading to learn what that reward is and how to earn it.

So, we read to learn — about the world around us, about the people around us, and about ourselves, just to give three possible lessons.

An “atheistic” reader then approaches the text without looking for a hidden meaning or purpose, instead reading simply to learn something. That reader may then feel free to read in any parallel or nonlinear way she likes because she lacks any concern for a higher power or authority over the text. The reader will not, in other terms, offend god with her lack of reverence.

Returning to the abstract, this philosophy of reading assumes that the world is there, for good or ill, to be understood by humans in whatever ways possible. There is no hidden truth to be discovered, no primrose path to follow; there is only the path chosen by the reader that he will walk as best he can toward whatever meaning he can make for himself.

This philosophy is akin to the idea of a “watchmaker” god. In this case, the author set the text into motion, devising its structure and then walked away, never to return. (I like to call it “fire and forget” writing.)

(Presumably, our atheistic reader does not have a spiritual crisis wondering where the book came from in the first place, preferring to deal with the artifact rather than its genesis.)

Back to Visel: after long comparisons to cubist painting and some nonlinear novels from the 1960s, Visel comes to this conclusion:

“Reading in parallel doesn’t need to be a dumbed-down version of sequential reading, as we might imagine it to be: there are more possibilities.”

Not poetry, and it rings a bit hollow, like the promises so oft read in the works of hypertext theorists from the 1990s, but nevertheless it is true.

Note this though, Visel does not claim that the nonlinear text is superior, only that nonlinear reading practices offer more possibilities; so don’t think we have to do away with the forms we are accustomed to. Instead, we should be open to nonlinear reading practices and cease lamenting for a lost Eden that was allegedly home to the solitary, linear, “studious” reader. Like Eden, that reader is a comforting myth.


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