Reading a book vs. Reading the Web

Over at Publishing2.0, Scott Karp wrote an interesting post exploring why he now prefers reading online to reading books. He has discovered that he prefers reading and thinking across the network rather than in a linear fashion:

When I read online, I constantly follow links from one item to the next, often forgetting where I started. Sometimes I backtrack to one content “node” and jump off in different directions. …So doesn’t this make for an incoherent reading experience? Yes, if you’re thinking in a linear fashion. But I find reading on the web is most rewarding when I’m not following a set path but rather trying to “connect the dots,” thinking about ideas and trends and what it all might mean.

His post reminds me a little of the discussion about video games vs. “linear” media. Some video game evangelists argue that games are superior to movies, books, etc. because only games allow players to choose their path and create the narrative and experience themselves. According to this argument, just as Karp finds “reading on the web is most rewarding when I’m not following a set path but rather trying to ‘connect the dots,’” gamers find video games more rewarding than other media because players don’t follow a set path but connect the dots however they want (within the confines of a game’s rules and boundaries).

My general response to that argument is that giving players control isn’t inherently better; it just means players may be looking for something different than movie-goers. I went to Juno to see the story Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman created; allowing me to take part in that or direct some scenes myself would have made it partly my story. As I’ve written,

if you have a story to tell, why would you want to dilute it by making it into a video game where each interaction changes the story you want to tell? That’s what authorial control is: Setting the pace of the story, the speed and manner in which information gets to the reader to move the narrative forward and fill out the dramatic arc; discovering things about the characters while writing the work and incorporating that into the story; not letting the narrative get caught up on conversation asides or thematic tangents.

Thus you can’t defend games against other media by saying “Games make better stories because they give you control and movies and books don’t.” (Michael Chabon is a far better storyteller than I am; I look to him for stories because I can’t write them myself; and telling my on-screen avatar where to go and who to shoot is not a better story than Kavalier and Clay). Instead say “Games are better because they give you control at all and that’s more interesting than being told a story by a talented storyteller.” I disagree with that, but it’s a fair argument.

I think there’s an element of that argument in Scott’s post. And while I’m much more sympathetic to his view of non-linear reading than I am to the superiority of non-linear (or pseudo non-linear) gaming — I am addicted to the Internet, after all — I still sometimes prefer reading a book to reading hyperlinked strands of thought online, for the same reasons I don’t buy the games-are-better argument.

I read a fair number of books, almost exclusively non-fiction. And I read them because when I want to really learn more about a topic, I want to find the expert (loosely defined) who has already “‘connect[ed] the dots,’ [thought] about ideas and trends and what it all might mean.”

For example, I’m currently reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Now, to learn and think more about How We Eat, I could have instead gone to The Ethicurean, found their posts on the book, followed links from there, and tried to make sense of it all without certain expertise to guide me. But I prefer to start by learning from someone who’s done all that work already, who has read the scientific studies and industry reports as well as the blog posts, who has conducted interviews and visited the farms himself — and then constructed his argument based on that knowledge and experience. Just because the book is linear doesn’t mean I’m passively absorbing it. While reading, I’m still connecting dots, asking questions, and making mental notes about things to follow-up online later.

Scott asks:

Is there such a thing as networked human thought? Certain there is among a group of people enabled by a network — but what about for an individual, processing information via the web’s network?

I guess I would make the case that reading a good non-fiction book is ultimately tapping into the same network in a different, possibly more effective (if you’re interested in a specific topic), way. Instead of exploring the network yourself, you’re accessing the network as filtered through the expertise of someone who has explored far more of that network than one reader ever could.

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