Ooh, Steven Johnson turns the traditional “we must read books” argument upside down in his forthcoming book, All Bad Things Are Good For You. Here’s an excerpt from his blog:

Many children enjoy reading books, of course, and no doubt some of the flights of fancy conveyed by reading have their escapist merits. But for a sizable percentage of the population, books are downright discriminatory. The reading craze of recent years cruelly taunts the 10 million Americans who suffer from dyslexiaóa condition didnít even exist as a condition until printed text came along to stigmatize its sufferers.

But perhaps the most dangerous property of these books is the fact that they follow a fixed linear path. You can’t control their narratives in any fashionóyou simply sit back and have the story dictated to you. For those of us raised on interactive narratives, this property may seem astonishing. Why would anyone want to embark on an adventure utterly choreographed by another person? But todayís generation embarks on such adventures millions of times a day. This risks instilling a general passivity in our children, making them feel as though theyíre powerless to change their circumstances. Reading is not an active, participatory process; itís a submissive one. The book readers of the younger generation are learning to ‘follow the plot’ instead of learning to lead.”

Steven Johnson studied at Brown when Brown was the only university teaching hypertext and electronic literature, and his first book was Interface Culture, shows his knowledge of hypertext theory and literature. His more recent books are a little more mainstream (well, sort of) and I rather like this approach: simply take it for granted that your readers will agree that the current generation was raised on interactive narrative and that this will make them discontented with linear narratives that require their submission. It’s the exact opposite argument to that put forth in the NEA’s recent report on the supposed death of reading, or at least of print novel-reading.

2 thoughts on “danger: linear reading

  1. susoz

    But surely it’s obvious that reading is not a linear process in itself – no one can control (or ‘dictate to’) the mind of the reader. eg Meeting people irl who you have only so-far encountered online is a lesson in how much you have ‘read into’ their words.

  2. Jill

    In that case, neither can videogames or the internet control or dictate to the mind of the reader. I think Steven Johnson’s responding to the frequently reiterated complaints that computers warp our minds and novel reading is the only good form of entertainment. I find this reads like a parodical inversion of those arguments. This for instance, from the recent NEA report Reading At Risk:

    Reading at Risk merely documents and quantifies a huge cultural transformation that most Americans have already noted — our society’s massive shift toward electronic media for entertainment and information. Ö most electronic media such as television, recordings, and radio make fewer demands on their audiences, and indeed often require no more than passive participation. Even interactive electronic media, such as video games and the Internet, foster shorter attention spans and accelerated gratification.

    As Nick points out in his post about this to GrandTextAuto, “The funny thing is, the report does not document such a shift. There are no results pertaining to the effects of video games or the Internet on literary reading, only rhetoric without foundation.”

    There’s a long history of this. Sven Birkerts was one of the proponents of this kind of stuff ten years ago, and there have been many others.

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