The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Commentary #2: The Fragmentation of Print

Bolter argues that hypertext is remediating print forms, offering a dichotomous view separating print from hypertext, separated on the basis of links and imagery and arguing the benefits of imagery will supersede print.  Will hypertext overwrite print due to inherent qualities such as flexibility and relation to natural ways of processing ideas which cross cultural and linguistic lines? The reader is forced to consider which form will become dominant, print or imagery:

“Although the writer and reader may use words to describe and interpret the pictoral message, two readers of different languages could share the same system of picture writing.”  (Bolter, 2001, 59)

While he questions the effectiveness of voiceless picture writing on its own, he purports that through hypermedia we realize “a kind of picture writing, which refashions the qualities of both traditional picture writing and phonetic writing.” (58)  

Bolter argues that hypermedia and eBooks offer increased flexibility to printed books in that they do not align themselves end to end on a shelf, rather “merging into the network of the World Wide Web, the electronic book invite exploration as part of a network of texts.” (81)  Bolter asserts that books must be complete units in themselves, and despite their physical proximity to other books, they become completely separate once placed on a library shelf.  While the idea of linking books, texts and images is interesting I question the value of this approach for all types of literature. 

The issue Bolter has failed to address to this point is the reasonable applicability of image and link based hypermedia to all forms of text.  Hypertext emulates magazines and newspapers in its marriage of images to text, offering unparalleled means to further exploration of ideas and concepts through linking nodes of information that allow the reader to follow paths of links through endless pages on the World Wide Web.  In encyclopedic form, hypertext offers a flexibility for the reader to explore subjects according to personal interest and in relatively effortless ways as were required in former volume-based, shelved books while images allow readers to appreciate context with less apparent description.  This form of hypertext, however, is not necessarily the ultimate solution to all forms of text.  Qualitatively, the text offered in such forms as magazines, newspapers, and encyclopedias differs greatly from that of prose text found in fiction.

Focusing on hypertext, this form does offer increased reader control through their organization of ideas “that can arrange themselves into a kaleidoscope of hierarchical and associative patterns-each pattern meeting the needs of one class of readers on one occasion,” (Bolter, 2001, 91) this encyclopedic example ignores the needs inherent to the narrative form.  Current novels are written in a linear and arguably male organization of linear storylines, building tension, climax and denouement.  The novel form favours author centred and directed, linear exploration of print while hypertext offers reader centred, open, non-linear exploration of links which span infinite pages and represent a multitude of variations of ways to explore the same available material.

Does hypertext, which indeed offers possibilities for certain forms of text that seem to represent an extension of inherent qualities of the texts themselves, offer the best solution for all texts?  The narrative form favours a closed author centred approach to reading and exploring text.  Would hypertext, despite all its possibilities, fit in with the demands of the narrative form?  Readers explore such texts as novels by following the direction of the author.  Rather than viewing this as a negative aspect of linear based fiction, it seems more reasonable to appreciate the unique forms and qualities of various texts which arguably determine their effectiveness in various forms of textual representation.  In the 1980’s hypertext-like narratives emerged (Moulthrop, 1995), such as the Choose Your Own Adventure novels for youth which made their debut at this time.  This type of book offered a hypertext-like situation where the reader navigated through the narrative by deciding on the course of action for plot and then turning to the appropriate page in the book to pursue the decided upon storyline.  Despite this exciting innovation in reading, the Choose Your Own Adventure hypertext-like approach to reader centred fiction did not replace traditional novel forms.

If we use this example to compare such forms as magazines and newspapers, encyclopedias and novels in the advent of hypertext, we could argue that before the advent of hypertext possibilities, the simulated hypertext forms of the encyclopedia and hypertext and image based forms of the magazine and newspaper existed independent of computer based hypertext and imagery.  While computer based hypertext allows the inherent qualities of these forms to become stronger, the form reduces the importance of authorship in the important form of fiction and the novel.  Who is to be in control of the text?  Do the readers control all forms of text, including story lines?  And how would this play out?  As readers, would we accept stories that we decided on our own, through creating outcomes and producing a fragmenting of literary outcomes in a myriad of possible storyline directions?  Stuart Moulthrop suggests that such reader directed programs violate “our sense of commitment, at least to the extent that this is denied in terms of…’selfish interaction,’ or an assumption that the story really does exist to please us.” (73)  Hypertext writing seems to change the act of writing in that it forces writers to envision and created a multitude of possibilities in accordance with the demands of the readers.  The novel form then becomes “a textual space within which his fiction operates… [whereby] the reader joins in actively constructing the text by selecting a particular order of episodes at the time of reading.” (42)  Despite the fact that the author still controls the text that is read, the text is only secondary to the choices made by the reader. 

In terms of imagery, while images can carry meaning beyond descriptive possibilities, can this strength inherent to images overwrite the text in narrative?  Bolter suggests that “[b]y combining alphabetic writing with images and diagrams… designers are defining the computer as a writing space that vacillates between intuitive and abstract modes of representation….where the verbal text must…compete for the reader’s attention with a variety of pictoral elements.” (Bolter, 2001, 61)  While he admits this utilization of images falls in line with the particular material, it is important to question the blanket idea that pictoral images could replace all writing forms which utilize pure text as a medium.  The genre of the narrative novel does not necessitate simply due to its textual makeup, inclusion in the realm of hypertext and image based alterations that will occur as a result of computer based forms.  Bolter’s use of weighted words, such as “exploited,” (73) when discussing the exclusive use of text in creating and presenting prose offers a glimpse into the negative view he carries with regards to the exclusive text mediums such as that of narrative.   

Whether or not a change from “books to electronic webs carries the force of historical necessity” as suggested by Bolter and Lanham, or will simply result in a fragmentation that will create new outlets for writing is yet to be seen.  In the introduction of literacy in the era of orality, oral forms of communication were not entirely overwritten or erased.  Both oral and literary forms continued to flourish and evolve according to benefits, possibilities and limitations of each form.  In the same way, I argue that hypermedia and traditional text forms will develop and coexist as benefits, possibilities, and limitations are determined. 

While it is impossible to accurately predict the future of either hypertext of print, it seems unnecessary to assume a total and complete overwriting of one system over another.  Traditional literary narrative forms may indeed branch off to include hypertext version, but traditional narrative forms such as the novel may be best left to the print form.  Hypermedia may allow for a permanent fragmentation of narration to include hypertext literature, whereby hypertext books will become readily available in addition to traditional print forms. Imagery may allow for increased image-based literature (such as is evident in comics), but primary utilization of images reflects a varying set of possibilities, benefits, and limitations that are not equivocal to the narrative novel form.  While film seems to be the closest we have come to realizing a shift towards pure image in narration, it is important to remember the text base of most films.  Such blockbusters as the Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, or Twilight series, My Sister’s Keeper, and the Boy in the Striped Pajamas are just a few.  Just as communication branched into the areas of literacy and orality in the face of the new literacy, perhaps fiction will branch into multiple areas including, but not limited to, traditional print forms and hypertext versions in accordance with social, literary, and fiction writing demands. 


Bolter, J.  (2001)  Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print [2nd edition].  Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Eribaum. 

Bolter, J & Joyce, M  (1987)  Hypertext and creative writing.  University of North Carolina.  Accessed at:

Moulthrop, S.  (1995)  Traveling in the breakdown lane: A principle of resistance for hypertext.  Accessed at:

1 comment

1 Clare Roche { 11.29.09 at 8:39 am }

I just wondered if you had any recomendations for the classroom.

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