On Reading and Linearity; or, the virtues of disorganization

Ok, I’ve been hardpressed to keep to my commitment to blog at least once a week.  But (he says hopefully) did anyone really miss me.

Gina Barreca has a nice piece over at the Chronicle of Higher Ed, where she talks about her own absolute disorganization as a personal librarian.  According to Barreca, book people fall in to two basic types: the puritanical organizers and the bohemian disorganized.  Both of whom look on the other with something of a pronounced moral disdain.

Personally I think I fall somewhere in the middle.  I am constantly anxious

What my library would look like if I were guilt-free

What my library would look like if I were guilt-free

about the disorganization of my books, which I suppose makes me something of a Calvinist.  Aware of my fallenness away from an ideal order, but also aware of my inability to do anything about.  Oh woeful disorganized man that I am, who will save my books from this body of sin and death.  Perhaps I’ll have to hire a life coach.

I’m actually genuinely interested in how Barreca described the effect of her disorganization on her reading.

So why do I prefer my own disorder to, for example, the brilliant ease offered by the books in my husband’s part of the library — the ones grouped alphabetically within their own periods?

For the same reasons I prefer a real-live bound, paper dictionary or thesaurus to a virtual one, which is the same reason I like libraries and bookstores, which just so happens to be the same reason I like reading promiscuously in the first place: You don’t know what delight an unexpected coupling will offer. There are literally unimagined pleasures arising from the surprising juxtaposition of unlikely words, materials, and texts.

How wonderful to discover what I didn’t know I was searching for, and what fun not to move, always, from A to B.

To some degree Barreca is flogging a distinction made by advocates of hypertext novels etcetera.  Typically, we imagine reading as a linear activity that procedes from beginning to end, and the supposed tyranny of the book reinforces this kind of reading process.  Always getting from point A to point B, no distractions inbetween.

What I like about Barreca’s offhanded comment is it shows how bizarre a picture of reading that actually is.  When advocates of hypertext declaim pompously about the superiority of networked reading in comparison to the tyrannical linear insistence of the book, I always think they have never really read a book, or at least their idea of reading is a game with which I am unfamiliar.

More typically we always read several books at once.  And we don’t read from beginning to end, we skip the dull parts, we read ahead to see if what we’re ploughing through at the moment is really worth it, we attend to the dialogue rather than the description, or vice-versa.  We forget what we read a week ago and start over, or we forget and skip forward to something that looks interesting.  We give up half way through and cast the text aside in despair. The form of the book has always been much more malleable than those hermeneuts of suspicion have allowed.

None of this necessary denies the superiority of hypertext for certain kinds of things, but at least in argumentation, we ought to give accurate pictures of what reading normally entails, so we can know how it is actually changing.

2 thoughts on “On Reading and Linearity; or, the virtues of disorganization

  1. Jeanne

    I agree. One of the things I’ve always asked people about is whether they read the preface, and if so, at what point. Rarely, I’ve found, do people read it at the beginning.


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