Remember “Choose Your Own Adventure” books?
For those of you who weren’t children in the 80’s and early 90’s in the U.S, these were short, cheap little volumes written in the second person, “you”, that gave “you” a series of simple choices with which to create your own story. For example, “you come to a door guarded by a huge, fire breathing dragon…. If you want to fight the dragon, turn to page 5. If, instead, you want to run away screaming, turn to page 8.” Etc….
As a child, who naturally made up her own stories, and was experimenting with writing stories as early as elementary school, I loved the concept of “Choose Your Own Adventure.” Theoretically, it gave the reader the ability to also be the writer. “You choose how it ends!” the advertising copy on the back of a popular “Choose Your Own Adventure” series read.
There was only one problem: the quality of the writing in most “Choose Your Own Adventure” books really sucked.
As an adult, I’ve often thought about exploring the possibilities inherent to “Choose Your Own Adventure”, or “Interactive Fiction,” to use the more grown-up terminology. It’s a genre that’s so often done badly, reduced to a series of simple choices that the reader doesn’t have much investment in making. But what if it were done well?
These are “interesting times” for fiction, and like the old Chinese saying, “may you live in interesting times,” which was actually a curse, there are many bloggers currently wringing their hands, fearing literature’s impending demise.
Call me an optimist, but I think literature will survive. Note that I said literature, not necessarily books. Formats change with the times. Story has staying power. I think fiction may just continue on in new forms.
I’ve been reading a lot of blog posts and seeing endless message board debates lately about the relative merits and demerits of the e-reader (Kindle, Nook, etc…)
While I have every intention of embracing these new technologies as just another means of experiencing the stories I love, I find e-reader detractors surprisingly vociferous. See this anti-ereader op-ed from the New York Times Review of Books
It’s an interesting history of the “book” form as we know it, but I don’t agree with Leve Grossman’s conclusion. Grossman makes the point that certain types of books are better suited to certain mediums. The novel, says Grossman, was designed for the codex (a codex = what we think of as a “book”, i.e. a stack of bound paper pages, as opposed to earlier literary forms – the scroll, the waxed tablet, etc…) Grossman also argues that the codex is the medium in which a novel is optimally read.
Perhaps epic poetry – Homer, Virgil, etc… – was optimally read on a long, unfurling scroll, the medium on which the ancients designed for it to be experienced. Having never read from a scroll, I’ll never know. But I don’t think the e-reader will detract from my enjoyment of Jane Austen anymore than I think the codex detracts from my enjoyment of Homer.
The article definitely got me thinking about how a reading format may affect the way in which we read, however. Grossman points out how the codex lends itself to a kind of nonlinear reading, appropriate for the deep reading of novels – i.e. you can flip back and forth between pages and chapters, and the codex can also serendipitously fall open to a specific page, often the most re-read scenes, due to the wabi-sabi like deterioration of paper bindings.
I love these qualities of paper books, which is why I’ll never give up my paper library, even if I do get a Nook. However, I think Grossman dismisses electronic reading too quickly; it too offers features that can enhance the novel.
The electronic word is more “choose your own adventure.”
When reading electronically, if I come across a word I’m not familiar with, I can look it up with one click. If I come across a concept I want to know more about, I can google it. You can do this with a print book too, but electronic reading makes us more inclined to do this, I think, because it’s literally right at our fingertips.
When I read electronically, I find myself jumping from one text to the next, clicking on links that interest me, which lead me to click on other links from those links, until the path of my reading looks much more like a “choose your own adventure” story than the traditional beginning-middle-end of a book.
I think if the 21st century invents a new form of literature, it will be one that works with this new reading consciousness, rather than against it.
I think authors have a choice – to keep bemoaning the loss of traditional reading ( and bemoan the modern attention span that spawned it) – or embrace the modern multi-tasking consciousness and find new ways to tell stories to a new type of reader.
How do you write a “choose your own adventure” that’s actually quality literature?
More on that in “Part II” of this post!