Interactive reading

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 “reading wheel.” It encourages reading not for “linear narrative” 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.


10 thoughts on “Interactive reading

  1. “Reading was a creative and re-creative engagement with a “living” text.”

    Or it was just “reading”, then as now. Folk have always scrapbooked poetry into commonplace books, dipped into certain types of works, and (generally) read narrative from beginning to end*. The type of text matters probably more than the date it was published in terms of how it was (and is) read.

    The reception of a text has always been a complex thing, differing by individual reader and individual text.

    Hypertext (especially with scripts and other fun stuff) offers something genuinely and fundamentally new in its dynamic nature, which associates more with the game than the text (cf. ‘Hamlet on the Holodeck’, Janet H. Murray, 1997 for a gentle intro). Much of this is physically impossible on paper, the closest thing being adventure game books of the 1980s (to go North, go to p.45 etc).

    There may be interesting stuff to be done on how much we trust a text, informed by our experience of the internet, and our new found distrust of what we read, because it is online, and all that that entails. Note the gullibility of the zillions of people who bought the fictional daVinci Code, and read it as fact (cf. War of the Worlds broadcast). Will the internet and all those phishing sites make us less gullible? Certainly three decades of political spin on TV have altered our perception of politicians.

    *There’s always someone who reads the end of a story first, but that probably says more about them than about narrative or the general reader.

  2. Yes, I agree with you that the medium of hypertext allows for ways of reading that are just impossible in print, because it allows the reader to break through the linearity of narrative in a way that a printed text just does not. But this is precisely what Chorney argues that the reading wheel allowed early modern readers to do, too:

    The ‘reference’ style of reading is symbolized in the reading wheel, ‘a vertical wheel turned with the help of a system of gears permitting the readers to keep a dozen or so books, placed on individual shelves, open before them at one time.’ Reading for ‘linear narrative’ is here replaced by reading multi-linearly or for points of interest that can later be arranged into a new ‘narrative’ according to individual needs and contexts.

    I find it hard to imagine that a user of a reading wheel would have ten epic poems or chivalric romances lined up, and would then spin the wheel, read a section, copy an interesting passage, and then move on to another romance. And I agree, skipping through a text is something completely different from reading a hypertext novel, where you determine the plot of the novel through your choice of links. But it is perhaps comparable to the way we browse the net in general, with RSS feeds or Google as our index, selecting only the bits of information that we are interested in, and then moving on to the next blog or site?

  3. In response to Jim, who was waiting in my moderation queue: take a look at this exhibition called Marginalia at Vancouver Public Library. They have an artist’s installation on display, which features digital images of notes written in the margins of library books. The artist sees these notes as “alternative archives” and “small, impersonal, unsanctioned voices in the cracks and crevices of the official structure.” Vancouver library bravely hosts the installation, but sternly adds that:

    The installation is not an endorsement of margin-writing. The Library does not sanction the defacement of library materials through margin notes or other forms of damage, and the installation is not intended to encourage patrons to write or make notes in books and other resources in the library’s collection.

  4. Kristine-As there is no evidence that a single reading wheel was ever actually built in the EM period, it kind of stuffs the argument that it could have allowed anyone to do anything, and must be classified with time machines and honest politicians.

    It was probably envisaged as a form of moving shelving for folk who had to do a lot of cross-referencing (ie. mechanised dipping-in) and not for whacky explorations in narrative.

    The temptation to read stuff into things just because we can is best resisted.

    Those interested in marginalia might like to check out ‘Books with Manuscript: A Short Title Catalogue of Books with Manuscript Notes in the British Library Including Books with Manuscript Additions, Proofsheets, Illustrations, Corrections’ edited by R. C. Alston. London: British Library, 1994.

  5. Also:

    ‘Owners, Annotators and the Signs of Reading’
    eds. Myers, Harris, and Mandelbrote.
    BL/Oak Knoll Press, 2005.

    ‘The Rosenthal Collection of Printed Books With Manuscript Annotations: A Catalog of 242 Editions Mostly Before 1600, Annotated by Contemporary or Near-Contemporary Readers’
    ed. Rosenthal.
    Yale UP, 1997.

  6. I just came across this abstract of a New York Times review of Kevin Sharpe’s Reading Revolutions: The Politics of Reading in Early Modern England (2000). I don’t have access to the whole review, but it sounds as if this reviewer agrees with Chorney, although this could also be an introduction about to be refuted later in the review. I still cannot believe that all “early modern Englishmen [and women?] read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book” — as this review states — and never read a narrative from beginning to end. I’m going to get Sharpe’s book from the library (and no, I won’t write in the margins).

    Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end, early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality.

  7. Kristine…


    The absurd generalisation that…

    “Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end, early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book”

    …is complete rubbish.

    Neither good historians, nor good textual critics say things like that. This is the sort of lazy half-baked, ill-considered, badly conceptualised rot that damages modern scholarship.

    Yes, some folk kept commonplace books. There are reasons for this worth exploring, and there are implications, but I suspect the vast majority were filled with ‘poetry the owner liked’, recipes, and potentially useful snippets on how to cure the pox.

    Don’t these academic authors have editors anymore?

    Sharpe’s book could be interesting, but I have my doubts, as a close reading of the blurb suggests that Sharpe is saying ’17thC readers were influenced by what they read’. I think we already knew that.

    The extrapolation to a universal generalisation from the reading notes of Sir William Drake? I have my doubts about that too. A study of Drake’s reading notes, without attempting excessive generalisations, would be much more useful, and potentially very valuable.

    “Authority, Sharpe argues, was experienced, reviewed, and criticized not only in the public forum but in the study, on the page, and in the imagination of early modern readers.” [Blurb]

    Well yes, I’m sure it was, as indeed were all the other major issues of the day, then, and now.

    Budding blurb writers might like to apply to Yale, as this tells us nothing.

    Anyone out there read this work and able to offer comments on it?

  8. Clanger — I am glad we agree on something! I just got the book from the library, I will do a post on it some time soon. But if someone else has read it, do comment! By the way, I think that as a historian of the Civil War, with its historiographical discussions of the particular and the general, Kevin Sharpe is not likely to make what you call excessive generalisations.
    I just browsed a little, here is Sharpe’s opinion on the issue of case studies from the introduction:

    Instead the fallout from revisionist and post-revisionist debates has been a series of detailed and specialized histories — of an individual, a parliamentary session or a local factional dispute. [Peter] Lake argues that such narrowness, often criticised as ‘antiquarian empiricism’, should not be lamented but ‘vindicated’, especially if what it surrenders in chronological breadth it makes up for by new approaches of broad cultural contextualisation – a form of thick description in fact. This may sound like nothing more than the old familiar ‘case studies’ or the more recently modish microhistories — such as The Cheese and the Worms or Natalie Davies’s Martin Guerre. And it may be akin to what the best case studies have always done: study an episode in detail as a means of interrogating the broad historical narrative, and of revealing what it occludes as well as plots. […] We need to see an episode or moment as a point on a number of contours, a point which constitutes different meanings according to the territory or relief under study — or as a result of the critic’s own mappings. In the richly textured case study, we may in fact discern not only the opportunity but the need to combine the questions of theory and techniques of textual criticism with empirical research and close historical situation. (61-62)

    Clanger, I have a hunch about what you are going to say about “the critic’s own mappings,” but I think this sounds good. I look forward to reading the book.

  9. Hmm. ‘Mapping’. I’ll let that one pass-I mellow under the influence of tea and sticky buns.

    As modern academic prose goes, that’s not bad. Let’s hope Sharpe has simply been a victim of his own blurb (and that’s never pleasant). 🙂

    Look forward to hearing your reponse to the study.

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