In an essay in the Academic Commons, Tatjana Chorney argues that there are many similarities between the way hypertext structures our reading practices, and the way in which early modern readers interacted with the things they read. Unlike a printed text that can only be passively read, hypertext shapes an active and appropriative reader who interacts with the text, and is involved in knowledge construction. This manner of active reading is as least as old as the early modern period, she writes: “The Renaissance reader was accustomed to applying “alien” texts to new purposes in a method of appropriative reading.”
Tatjana Chorney looks at the way in which early modern readers copied fragments out of poems to keep for themselves, sometimes giving them different titles. Reading was a creative and re-creative engagement with a “living” text. She concludes that the four things that our internet reading practice has in common with early modern reading are: non-linearity; a protean sense of text and its functions; affinity with oral models of communication, and a changing concept of authorship. Chorney also refers to the machine that featured here before – the reading wheel:
The experience of reading texts in hypertext, the best known example of which is the World Wide Web, is very similar to the experience of reading with the help of a â€œreading wheel.â€ It encourages reading not for â€œlinear narrativeâ€ but for points of interest, empowering readers to shape and control the reading process by selecting and reading only those parts of texts that are memorable or relevant to them.
Chorney makes the comparison between these two practices of reading, both informed by different techniques, in order to learn something about pedagogy. Historical awareness of early modern reading habits, she argues, will increase our ability to relate to students whose reading and learning habits are shaped by the new medium of hypertext.
Her characterization of the reader of a printed text as passive, as well as this reference to the learning habits of students reminded me of a more active involvement with the printed text that I encountered during my year at Birmingham University. Students there engaged with library books in a way that I had never encountered in the Netherlands. Whenever I went to the University Library to read a set text for a course, say, Greenblatt’s Shakespearean Negotiations, there would be a proliferation of pencilled notes in the margins of the library book. Not just little squiggles to mark an interesting passage, as you might find in a Dutch library book. No, entire discussions were going on in the margins. A reader had commented on Greenblatt’s argument, another reader had reacted to those comments again, and then… You get the idea: an abundant para-text was growing in the margins. And I loved it, because on the whole they were quite clever discussions of the text. This kind of active reading, I would say, goes back even further than the early modern period, witness the medieval manuscript of the first testament below, with comments in different inks in at least three different hands (click on the image for the larger picture). In the case of the manuscript, however, the different hands are from different periods. Because the library books are – in a sense – in the public domain, the comments could truly react to each other in a short space of time. You could say these scribbles in the margins are a way of academic community-building. It would be interesting – if this is a widespread practice – to compare Birmingham para-texts with those at Oxford or Cambridge.