Back before e-books, I used to go to my neighborhood branch of the public library to browse. Mostly I’d look through the “new releases.” I enjoyed the physical act of pulling a volume from its shelved position for whatever reason (I recognized the author, liked the subject, thought the cover had an ultra-cool design), flipping through pages, checking out the table of contents and reading the very first oh-so-important sentence, imagining the treasures within.
But there was also the equally viable choice of rejecting that book and choosing another, and another, and another, until one seemed to offer more potential pleasure than the others. Once a book was chosen, however, the browsing was over because, as we all know, reading is a linear event.
Bookshelves are grids while the books populating them have narrative timelines inside. The first chapter leads to the second, page one hundred follows page ninety-nine. The content of the story itself depends on narrative progression. Actions lead to reactions, causes lead to effects, problems beg for solutions, dilemmas demand the resourcefulness needed to overcome them. One thing has to happen before another one will make sense.
While timelines move straight ahead, grids offer multiple choices, many directions. Grid browsing connects unlike subjects. I can be in the science section, step to one side and I’m in art, turn around and suddenly I’m in the biographies. Grids offer access to all possible stories versus access to one story, one storyline at a time. There is a distinct pleasure in prolonging the browsing process, sampling all possible stories before settling for only one.
The internet is a giant version of the library grid, all books on all topics browse-able by topic, title, author’s name, keywords. Amazon’s “look-inside” feature provides the virtual version of browsing physical books on shelves. But the same thing happens once a book is chosen and added to my cart. Ebook or hard copy, I’ve just purchased a linear experience.
What if browsing could continue inside the book? And how would this work?
Experiments in interactive fiction have mostly fallen flat because the narrative arc (think of a gently curved timeline) is what holds the whole thing together. Disturb the arc and the story is ruined, and nothing disturbs the arc like interactivity. Deconstructing a story leaves it in pieces, and the reader may not have the same skill as the author for assembling the pieces into a satisfactory whole.
But what if additional, browse-able elements did not interfere with the story, but instead augmented its effects? What if adding something grid-like to a timeline enabled the story to continue its forward momentum while at the same time allowing the reader to choose from among possible narrative associatons?
The grid has to exist alongside the timeline, not separate from it.
It’s reading text augmented with visuals, sounds, additional texts that never take you away from where you are, because like the characters and events in the story, the elements exist inside the timeline. These augmentations are more than illustrations; they are stand-alone mini-concepts related in some way to the primary text. But because they are also gridlike, they can be accessed apart from the linear text, perhaps as varying grids – a character grid, a locations grid, a themes grid, an events grid – each offering a different version of the story, not tied specifically to its characters and events, but related. Another way to construct the story, its themes, its elements.
Here’s an example I’ve created for Venus on Mars. In the linear text, my character Letha has this experience just as she dies:
The smell came first, something rotting. The window light flickered and then dimmer; hidden in the encroaching shadows of her sitting room, Letha was able to make out a narrow chancel filled with water rushing away from her toward a sparkling oasis she’d known was there her entire life, but had never been able to locate – as if the paint-by-number landscape in the poorly realized painting hanging on the opposite wall had become a garish portal to her after life, and the turquoise river depicted in it the route she’d take to get there.
And there’s the painting on the wall, right alongside the text. Choose the painting and it comes to life, a series of coffins floating gently on the water. Meanwhile the story continues:
She traveled supine along the surface of the water, soft on her body as the satin lining her casket, now a sturdy boat ferrying her to her next destination. She turned her head to see a network of similar containers in the distance; each must be carrying its own passenger.
Just below the painting there’s more text, a brief meditation on the idea of death as a journey, citing Emily Dickinson and Albert Einstein (art and science side by side!). You’re still in the story, but you’ve just experienced an augmented moment within it. And that augmented moment is made up of wildly disparate elements.
Bookshelf browsing is a near-lost art. I want to resuscitate it and relocate it inside the story, where it just may belong.